Tuesday, December 06, 2011

The Month That Was (Lost) - November 2011

The Month The Was (Lost) - November 2011: I’m afraid I have to do something that I promised myself never to do: bail on the monthly update. In all the years I have been keeping this diary, and the blog it was before, going back before the turn of the century, I have never failed to at least do a monthly update. But at the moment I just don’t have time to generate anything of value. I have things of value to write, but it’s really too late.

The deal is, I extended my annual trip out west this year from a few days to nearly two full weeks -- road tripping through Arizona and Utah and Nevada and California, naturally including the habitual Vegas Thanksgiving. Then when I got back all fired up to tell the story I got a devastating smack down in the form of food poisoning that laid me out cold for days. (I have since discovered that everyone has a food poisoning story and they all involve not eating for days, dehydration, and an suddenly intimate relation with bodily fluids and functions. Now I have mine.) I only just yesterday emerged from the fog.

I have a couple of book reviews and, of course, an extended trip report, but I have no time to get them sorted into any coherent form. So I apologize. Sincerely, I feel quite bad about this. I vow that next month will be extra long and reasonably close to on-time. Don’t kick me out of your RSS feed just yet.

Sunday, November 06, 2011

The Month That Was - October 2011

The Month That Was - October 2011: As I write this I am in the midst of a malicious head cold (my first in over a year, I think) and I am facing a call for jury duty tomorrow. I already feel like I am making no progress and now I am going to be a few more days behind. My house is no further along than it was at the outset of the summer *pause for a deep breath* and...

I have spent the better part of a month in comic misadventures just trying to get an electrician over to do some lighting upgrades. I scaled back my furnishing purchases because I needed to gauge my cash flow more accurately after some unexpected expenses from wood rot. The handyman who promised me bathroom shelves in the spring still hasn't got them installed. I paid to have the windows cleaned inside and out for fall (lots of windows in my place) and a month later I had to get the entire exterior sprayed for Box Elder bugs/European Paper Wasps/Japanese Ladybeetles, dirtying the windows again. The sprinkler guy told me he'd arrange to blowout my system for the season in a couple of weeks; that was over a month ago. I planted Hydrangeas and the deer ate them. I went to cut the grass for the last time of the season only to find a dead mower battery.

I'm a patient man, but I do have my limits. And I do have an Uzi. (Oh, come on. I don't really. As far as you know.)

On the other hand, from the Department of Count-Your-Blessings, I had my first colonoscopy -- which is something you young'uns have to look forward to when you're fifty-something -- and I am clean, figuratively and literally. It is not a pleasant experience and I will not recount the details although I am surprised it hasn't been the source of a South Park episode yet. Bottom line, my innards are just dandy.

As promised I did shake the minor, fleeting addiction I had to a couple of reality shows and started hammering through the next draft of my latest writing project. Slowly, as usual.

[Books] Book Look: Whatever
[TV] TV Roundup
[Tech] Owned by My Phone
[Science] You Don't Know What You Don't Know

[Books] Book Look: Whatever

Book Look: Whatever, by Michel Houellebecq: This is a tricky one to evaluate. It is defeatist, pessimistic and even contemptuous, but it is not without a sort of refreshing point of view.

The overarching theme is the degradation of human relationships in general and romantic relationships in particular. We follow a mid-level technical instructor as he travels to government sites to train users on a new software system which, as it turns out, nobody wants and will not really be used. He is paired up with an ugly and socially awkward partner who, even at age 28, makes a desperate fool of himself in pursuit of women he can never get. The lead character has seen and accepted the sorry state personal interaction in the world; the ugly partner fights to the very end. Death and madness ensue.

Houellebecq's hobby horse is that in the wake of feminism and liberalism (small "l"), sex, and by extension other social interaction, has become a winner take all contest. There is a strict hierarchy where those at the top get all the spoils and the rest are left with nothing. And, correspondingly, love is no longer possible because it simply doesn't matter when there is only feast or famine.

This novel triggered some strong reactions when released, mostly because it goes directly counter to the prevalent progressive (small "p") mode of thought that dominates all public communication. That in itself makes it rather refreshing. What we commonly refer to as controversies are really just perfectly positioned opinions that allow people to tell themselves they are being forward thinkers or open minded, when in fact, they are being as dogmatic as possible. Holuellebecq is definitely not maneuvering for a properly position opinion. For that reason alone I will likely read more of his work. I don't much buy into his view of things. It seems to me, as with most critiques of modern society, there is an implicit romanticizing of the past, and, as with any social novel, there is a tendency to elevate a personal frustration to the level of societal illness. But like I said, it's refreshing to find an unusual angle, even if it is depressing. Plus, Holuellebecq is an exceptional stylist -- laser sharp sentences; so strong it comes through in translation. There is no filler here, it reads quickly and powerfully.

Should you read Whatever? Probably not. I suspect most people would find the underlying philosophy somewhat off-putting, if not offensive. If you are feeling disaffected or bleak, it might fit the bill, or if you yearn for ideas far out of the mainstream. But be honest with yourself about that, you probably don't.

[TV] TV Roundup

TV Roundup: Let's start with the good stuff. Breaking Bad ended another great season. I am mildly surprised that it was so good since I read at the outset how the showrunner, Vince Gilligan, went into the season unsure of its direction. Ninety-nine times out a hundred that's a recipe for disaster, but they pulled it off and made a classic. Tremendous build up in tension throughout the entire season eventually reaching an ending that, while it pushed the boundaries of plausibility, fit very well.

Even more interestingly, once the season was over, was that the overwhelming majority of opinion is that Walter has gone to the dark side; that he is now one of the Bad Guys. Even Gilligan thinks so. Me, I'm not so sure. At the outset of the series he was a doormat. His wife was a contemptuous ball-buster, now she's dependant and pleading. His brother-in-law was the tough guy alpha male, now, through the string of events that doesn't count in Walt's favor, they are equals. His handicapped son, who loved him but didn't seem to admire him, now worships him. He was essentially reduced to meekly begging for help from past friends who had won astounding success, while he toiled thanklessly as a high school teacher. Now he is rich and needed and just defeated the biggest drug cartel in the Northern Hemisphere through guts and will and brains. There have been costs, but there is also a cost to being pitiful, ineffectual dust speck to the last.

Hey, if the answers were clear, it wouldn't be good drama. Looking forward to the next, and last, season.

I remain very entertained by Psych and whether you would be depends almost entirely on your taste in comedy. Like all the USA shows, the plots are borderline incoherent, but they do really well with the snappy crosstalk dialogue, including an occasional moment of comic genius. But then, my sense of comedy was formed in the time before all jokes involved bodily fluids and anatomical assessment, so make of that what you will.

Dexter is doing OK, this go around. Last season was a pointless mess. This one is getting kind of interesting. But, of course, being Dexter it will never be more than a guilty pleasure. There is a strong, Christian theme going on this season. There is a good repentant Christian and a bad extremist Christian to prompt Dexter to chew on the value of belief. One would expect this to turn into a rehash of all the adolescent level "If there's a God why do bad things happen?" drivel that bad writers lean on in desperation. But they've done a good job of being even handed with respect to spirituality so far. Dexter has come a long way from being a true sociopath who is incapable of feeling, which was needed for there to continue to be any ongoing drama. Still, from a dramatic standpoint, it's a tight squeeze between sociopath and normal dude who just likes killing people. Go too far either way and you lose the character and the show. For now, continues to be good creepy fun.

I should like The Walking Dead more than I do. There are some decent story lines, lots of open-ended unresolved issues, the episode that just aired prior to this was an examination of the cost and value of living, heighten by the reality of the zombified world. Some choose suicide, parents question whether their children wouldn't be better off dead than face the inevitable, some kill so that others may live. Life as a point of priority. Great premise, decent acting, nice visuals. But the characters are really as shallow as possible and the dialogue is painfully bad. Nothing but expository blather and hopeless clich‚. The "I can't do it!" "Damn you, you have to!" school of discourse. Really, I have to DVR this and fast forward through talking. Could have been a contender.

More disappointing still is Boardwalk Empire. The Scorcese connection gave this cache and ill-informed critics declared it to be a classic early on when it was actually never even close. One of the most heavy handed shows ever. It is typical of late Scorcese in that it is nothing new. Just the same old gangster stories rehashed with a different setting. The characters here and completely interchangeable with any number of characters in The Departed or Gangs of New York. The men are either cowardly and conniving or ruthless and power hungry. The women are either Madonna or Whore. The brash upstart rebelling against his father figure, the veteran scarred in both body and soul, the upright detective with a dark secret. Every story arc is telegraphed. HBO mistakenly renewed this for another season of the current one. This show needs to be wrapped up as quickly as possible.

The most promising news is that the Return of The Milch is coming sooner than expected. The Luck pilot will air on December 11th, nearly a month and a half before the regular season is scheduled to start. I can't wait to hear me some Milchian quasi -iambic pentameter again. Plus we get some Michael Mann stylings and a Dustin Hoffman versus Nick Nolte thespian cage match (also involved: Dennis Farina). Plus it's about gambling. It could cause a rift in the fabric of space, or be the biggest disappointment since John from Cinncinnati.

[Tech] Owned by My Phone

Owned by My Phone: I am now a Verizon contract customer with a Windows 7 HTC Trophy phone. I am also paying roughly 10 times more than I was for my prepaid T-Mobile on an old school RAZR. With a 2 year lock in, it had better be worth it.

I have to confess once I managed to convince T-Mobile I was really who I say I am, which took a couple of days, it was pretty easy to get my number switched over. The phone cost me exactly one penny through Amazon Wireless, whom I recommend if you're in the market; they are offering the one penny deal on some pretty sweet phones. In the future all stores will be Amazon.

Setup was pretty easy. I never referred to a manual. I got my email/facebook/twitter all set up fine. It took me a bit to realize that the only way to get the latest version of Windows Phone 7 (Mango) was to hook up to the Zune service on my laptop, but that too went off without a hitch. Kudos to Microsoft on this. They've done well. I suspected they would. They did a good job with the late, lamented (but not lamentable) Zune player. I still use my first gen 30 gig hard drive model to store all my music.

In combination with Verizon, which has awesome coverage, even for me out in the sticks, it looks to be a pretty solid combo. Still, I gack at the $80/month. I just have to keep reminding myself of how many calls I missed thanks to T-Mobile's parsimonious coverage. After two years, it'll go up for re-evaluation. I can survive with it that long. My big fear is that I find myself dropping $80/month and only using it once a week or something.

And I will NOT get addicted to Angry Birds. Not gonna happen. I swear.

[Science] You Don't Know What You Don't Know

You Don't Know What You Don't Know: The 20th century was a watershed century in physics. It brought us the Copenhagen Model, Quantum Mechanics, and of course, Relativity. These theories proved to be remarkably accurate as models and enabled tremendous practical advances, to the point where they began to be thought of as more than just models. They began to be thought of as reality; as if anything that violated the model (conceptually, if not measurably) would in time be explained away.

Now it's beginning to look like the 21st century is going to slap down any notion that we had possibly zeroed in on reality. First there was the hullaballoo over a faster than light neutrino. Relativity makes it quite plain that nothing whatsoever can go faster than the speed of light. IF something actually has gone faster, it doesn't nullify relativity as a measurement and prediction tool, it just means it wasn't the real answer -- accurate but wrong.

Of course, we are a long way from verifying faster-than-light neutrinos. There are a handful of tests for verification set up for 2012, so we'll see. More interesting is my recent discovery that there is a small, but steadfast cadre of physicists who don't really buy into relativity at all, even if the speed limit is valid. One book that piqued my interest is Questioning Einstein, by Tom Bethell. I need to order this and once I read it you'll get a report (here's an author summary), but I gather the argument is that Special relativity is unnecessary and General Relativity is outright wrong. In light of the neutrinos, no wonder there are no cheap copies floating around.

An equally troubling development is that no one can seem to find the Higgs Boson. Tritely described as "the God Particle" the Higgs boson is the thing that, in broadly accepted theories, endows things with mass. It is what allows there to be tangible things in the universe. And the flagship project of CERN was to locate the Higgs boson. They had it all lined up. And they began marching through the various possible energies where it might be located and now, after marching through a good number of them, it's not looking good (curiously, Stephen Hawking had bet the search would fail).

We are probably as wrong as Newton. Maybe as wrong as Aristotle. For some reason, the older I get the more comfort I take in seeing that we aren't really any better/smarter/wiser than ever. I guess I see a corollary being that we probably aren't any worse/dumber/more foolish either, which is what's comforting. All of our best-of-times-worst-of-times histrionics are just sound and fury. I don't know. I don't really understand why I like the idea that everything we know is wrong or at least mis-imagined, but I do. Maybe it makes me feel better about getting so much wrong in my own life.

The upside is despite their existential errors, the theories still yield tremendous practical benefits and lead to some astounding technological advances. So no complaints and sneering. Just be happy to pay $80/month for Angry Birds.

Saturday, October 08, 2011

The Month That Was - September 2011

The Month That Was -- September 2011: One thing I remember about living near Washington DC is that the bums were quite clever. Instead of begging for a dollar or spare change, they would often ask for very specific amounts of money. "Can I have 78 cents?" "I need $1.20. Can anyone lend me $1.20?" The implication being that they weren't just begging for anything they could get, they had a purpose, a goal they were trying to achieve.

I got the same sensation once now that I've turned 51 (on the 13th). Saying you're 51 is precise. Saying you're 50, can leave the impression you really 50-something and you're just being casual, like you don't really care how old you are. People respond, "Exactly 50?" Being 51 is like being a clever bum.

I have no idea if that is a cogent connection, but at age 51, one grasps for anything positive.

Only one bit of travel this month. On September 10th I was up at Mackinac Island for the annual 8 mile run around the circumference. It was beautiful and cool and not crowded. I managed to better my time from last year by about 50 seconds per mile. Afterwards the bars were full for the great Michigan comeback against Notre Dame. About as good of a weekend as you could ask for.

Apart from a major deck clearing of all my summer reading, there is a distinct Michigan theme to the posts this month. Not intentional, but I guess I am just becoming a bit of a homer.

[TV] Opposing Pawns
[Books] Book Look: Summer Reading Round Up
[Rant] Fear The Hayride
[Good Links] Link Slam

[TV] Opposing Pawns

Opposing Pawns: I admit it. I got sucked into another reality show. Now mind you, I don't watch things like Jersey Shore or anything featuring a Kardashian. And I'll pass on the various flavors of dancing and surviving. But I admit a passing interest in the blue collar ones - American Chopper, Deadliest Catch, Ice Road Tuckers, etc. Before you point and laugh, I'm not a religious devotee; they typically run these shows several times a week and I'll often flip one on while doing other stuff (like writing this post).

Anyway, one that recently caught my eye was Pawn Stars. It's set in a pawn shop in Vegas (just up the street from the strip casinos, in fact), and either due to the location or the fame from the show, people bring in some serious cool stuff to sell or pawn. And I love cool stuff. I couldn't care less about the manufactured interpersonal drama, and luckily they don't really overplay that. It's all about the stuff. Really, I'm going to make a point of stopping in the shop next time I'm in Vegas.

But it's nothing like any pawn shop you've ever been in. Pawn shops are generally dreary places loaded with cheap jewelry pawned by assorted marginal characters for tiny amounts of cash which is subsequently invested in Colt 45. Enter a competing show: Hardcore Pawn. (Note how I forewent a pawn/porn play on words for the title of this post, instead going for a chess reference. From this you should conclude I have a lot of class.)

If Pawn Stars is Barney Miller, Hardcore Pawn is COPS. No Vegas sunshine here. Hardcore Pawn is set in Detroit, right on the infamous Eight Mile Rd., about three miles from where I grew up. Judging from the show, about half of their customers get ushered out the door by a posse of enormous bouncers when they don't get the deals they want. People try to pawn all sorts of things -- underwear, broken garden tools, all manner of fake jewelry. Every encounter is on the edge of rationality and carries the potential for outright violence. To summarize, it is pure, distilled Detroit. Disturbingly compelling.

Also, this business of watching reality TV, even decent reality TV, means I need to get back to writing.

[Books] Book Look: Summer Reading Round Up

Book Look: Summer Reading Round Up: I have actually pre-ordered two books from Amazon, both coming in October, so now is as good a time to catch up with some quick reviews of my summer reads:

I'm Gone, by Jean Echenoz -- This is a lightweight comic novel about an aging, womanizing art dealer who gets involved in a convoluted pursuit of antiquities. It doubles as a murder mystery and lad lit. It is also one of the best-selling and most beloved examples of recent French Literature, which is very surprising to me. It is not remotely deep or epic, just wistful. It's a fun read, but it's really fluffy entertainment. Perhaps it's lost something in the translation. Should you read it? Sure. It'd be a great beach read. (And as you would expect of a decent comic novel, it's out of print.)

It's All Greek to Me, by Charlotte Higgins -- This book was fun. It's an irreverent and good humored overview of Classic Greek arts and culture, and its influence to this day. A topic that's generally presented as dour and academic turns into something light and enjoyable but still informative. Not remotely comprehensive, but great for kibitzing. Should you read it? I can't imagine why not. How often do you get to do something fun and be smarter for it?

Playback, by Raymond Chandler -- Nothing better than a hard-boiled mystery and double shot of bourbon to take you out of the world for a while. Playback has all the hallmarks: a murder, a mysterious client, a redheaded femme fatale. The last, and generally thought to be the weakest of Chandler's novels, many people think it was mailed in, but I saw it as stripped down, laser focused Chandler. There is nothing but Marlowe and the mystery, no other points to be made. Not a superfluous word. It's Chandler with nothing more to prove. It's a fitting close to Marlowe the character and Chandler's career. Should you read it? If you like classic hard-boilers, yes.

Driving Like Crazy, by P.J. O'Rourke -- Good Ol' P.J. Few writers are as consistently funny and insightful while maintaining a perfect middle-of-the-road humanity. P.J. has a personal and professional relationship with cars over the years, starting with his family business in Ohio. In this book he revisits all the car oriented pieces he's written over the years, along with delightful reflective commentary, in some cases many decades on. Imagine how a sixty-something would look back on an article written in his youth entitled "How to Drive Fast on Drugs While Getting Your Wing-Wang Squeezed and Not Spill Your Drink". Should you read it? Absolutely.

The Emperor of All Maladies, by Siddhartha Mukherjee -- One of the smartest people I know once told me, "Cancer is what kills you when you survive everything else." That's a terrific way of looking at cancer, which is not like a normal disease, it is inherent in the nature of our biology. Even if you avoid high doses of known carcinogens, you are all rolling the dice against cancer every minute of every day. Live long enough and it'll get you. Mukherjee comes to approximately the same conclusion over the course of this highly dramatic, but not dramatized (I think), account of the history of cancer and cancer treatments. Written as catharsis to help him come to terms with the emotional upheaval of facing his own cancer patients. He gets a little overwrought when discussing his patients which is understandable and even admirable.

His canvas is large, perhaps overwhelming, following the researchers and charity organizations and so forth, but his prose is unfailingly clear. Winner of the Pulitzer Prize. Should you read it? Most likely. We'll all be touched by cancer in some way. This will give you a good base of understanding.

Mapping the Deep (also called The Restless Sea), by Robert Kundzig -- A lively and vivid history of oceanography, from the first tentative drag lines to the multi-mile deep submersibles. A feast for the curious, you can really get a sense of the horrendous difficulties of deep sea exploration and what an astoundingly bizarre world it is. The most fascinating being the alien life forms and eco-systems the spring up around the superheated, sulfur-infused water pouring out deep sea vents. For some reason they changed the title from The Restless Sea to Mapping the Deep and also added pictures and illustrations. I highly recommend the buying the later version, Mapping the Deep. I have the earlier one and it would definitely benefit from pictures. It also suffers in spots from PBS-style environmental handwringing, but it's not overwhelming and you can see it coming and skip over it.

I admit to having an interest in the deep sea ever since that killer episode of Blue Planet came out a few years ago, so I didn't really need any special reason to read this. Should you read it? If you are curious about the topic or the state of scientific knowledge in general or just appreciate good pop science books, then yes. But it won't have the broad appeal of Emperor of All Maladies for a scientific history.

The Half Made World, by Felix Gilman -- One of those fantasy novels where the setting is historical, but there is a strange twist to things. Here we find ourselves in the Old West, but a Steampunk Old West. The major power is The Line - a strange amagalm of totalitarian egalitarians and massive sentient machines, like nightmarishly huge steam engines, who crush all before them and destroy the land as they go. Years ago they effectively squashed the increasingly mythical Old Republic, and are now only opposed by a shadowy quasi-anarchic group called The Gun, who wreak havoc and chaos through the use of magical guns to which their owners have a symbiotic relationship. The story follows characters through various hyper-violent conflicts in pursuit of the last survivor of the Old Republic who may harbor a secret that could bring peace.

Whew. That's heavy. The Half Made World breaks no new ground and is rather predictable in points, but benefits greatly from the pacing and the vivid description of the Half Made World itself. Should you read it? If you love the whole steampunk aesthetic or are a maven of alternative historical fantasy, don't miss. Otherwise, if it sounds interesting to you, it probably will be. It's a good escapist adventure.

Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell, by Susanna Clarke -- This book is a wonder. Another historical fantasy, this set in England around the time of Napoleon, but with magicians. Except magic has disappeared from England, it is really only studied as a point of historic interest. Enter two magicians, an arrogant older man trying to horde knowledge, and an arrogant younger man trying to change the world. Their paths intertwine as both allies and enemies and eventually like-minded souls. Along the way there is intrigue and betrayal and good humor, battles and lives and loves are found and lost. It is as full a story as you can imagine.

Clarke writes in a pastiche of classic English styles from Austen-ish gentility, to Victoria propriety, to dry Edwardian irony. She hugs the line of cuteness by using intentional misspellings, but overall the effect is similar to that of Patrick O'Brien; it lends a sense of authenticity. She uses footnotes to tell tangential stories that give the book the meta feel which, again is risky but she makes it work partly because she is simply such a good story teller.

But the big gift here is the characters and their development. So often when fantasy gets injected into a story, the focus turns to defining the mythology. The characters are afterthoughts, cliches to be puppeteer around to show off the coolness of the world. But not here. Instead you will find complex, fully formed and dramatically intricate characters, all following comprehensive arcs, including many of the smaller role players. Just wonderfully done -- astonishingly good. Should you read it? Unless you have a fervent hatred of the fantastic, then yes you should. Be warned, it is long and involved, but very rewarding.

[Rant] Fear the Hayride

Fear the Hayride: When will these threats to the safety of our children finally be addressed? Who will so the courage to stand up to this terror? If not us, who? If not now, when?

I am speaking, of course, of the horrible scourge of hayrides. And I am speaking, of course, sarcastically.

The outskirts of Ann Arbor is peppered with little cider mills and farmer's markets and other homespun, quasi-rural , family-oriented sites of interest. Most open up in late summer and go until it gets too cold. Some of them are dedicated facilities, some are working farms. I don't go to them very often but they are one of the charming points of living on the cusp of the rural and the suburban. Most of these establishments offer hayrides -- horse-drawn wagons filled with bales of hay on which you (mostly children) ride around the grounds for a small price.

A couple of weeks ago, at one local market, there was a hayride accident. It was a bad one. The driver fell off and was possibly hit by the wagon or stepped on by one of the horse -- details are confused as usual in such circumstances -- and the result was tragic. It looks like the driver may be paralyzed. It's a horrible thing to have happen.

But in our brave new world, we can't see an accident as an accident and mourn the tragic outcome. We have to have a scandal. We have to have moral indignation. We have to sue and legislate.

As part of a diligent journalistic crusade, AnnArbor.com has discovered that there is no state agency regulating hayrides! How can this be? It turns out there have been two -- TWO!!! -- hayride accidents in the last two years. Not two this season or even two in the same place. Just plain two. So of the hundreds of hayrides and thousands of hayriders, there have been two accidents. No wonder we want to get the government involved.
Amy Hogg said many people don't understand the risks from hayrides. "I've tried so hard to educate people on makeshift hayrides and how dangerous they are," she said. "They don't realize that this isn't a freak accident. This is happening a lot."

She said she made up her own slogan to try to educate people."If it wasn't built with sides it wasn't meant for rides," she said.
Evidently, two is a lot and requires education and regulation. You can tell because of the rhyming catchphrase.

You'd have to be blind not to see the way this will play out.
  • Somebody, perhaps the aforementioned Amy Hogg, forms an interest group: Mothers Against Agricultural Violence. Despite having a total membership of four (including Betty from up the street who only ever came to the first meeting and just ate a muffin then had to leave) they find some a congressman willing to champion legislation in the hopes of building some family-values cred.

  • Regulatory legislation slides into law in some sort of omnibus bill. The three lawmakers that actually read the hayride legislation aren't enthusiastic about it but they can't risk being painted as heartlessly pro-business.

  • A new office of Agricultural Entertainment is created and filled with bureaucrats charged with implementing the regulation. They conclude that,
    1. All hayride drivers must take a safety certification course -$50
    2. All hayride operators must be licensed - $125/year
    3. All hayride wagons must be modified with fixed seating, including three point restraints, and guardrails - $2500/wagon
    4. All riders under the age of 18 must wear helmets - $600
    5. Any hayride with a capacity of 5 or greater must have a hydraulic lift to accommodate the differently-abled - $3000/wagon
    6. All hayrides proprietors are subject to annual inspection - $200/year.

  • AnnArbor.com runs a human interest story about the grass roots success of Mother's Against Agricultural Violence with photos of determined looking women and smiling happy children.

  • Hayride operators struggle to meet these new requirements. They try to raise prices to cover them but that just cuts into the volume.

  • AnnArbor.com runs a human interest story about the economic struggles of hayride proprietors featuring photos of downtrodden looking rural workers.

  • Hayride operators band together to form an interest group, The Society for Farm Heritage Preservation. Despite the fact that only two of their members are actual farmers, they find a state congressman willing to champion legislation in the hopes of building some limited government cred.

  • The Hayride Tax Relief Credit slides into law in some sort of omnibus bill, the three lawmakers that actually read the hayride legislation aren't enthusiastic about it but they can't risk being caricatured as hindering small business, and besides, the property tax increase will cover it.

  • The following summer, in an effort to win a prize offered by the cable show Who's America's Biggest Assclown?, a teenager unbuckles his safety harness, tears off his helmet, moons the other riders, and leaps from a hay wagon on to a passing dirt bike driven by a friend. Not surprisingly he cracks his skull and breaks about thirty-seven bones and ends up in a coma. But the video taken by his cohort gets the most hits on you tube for five days running.

  • His parents sue for 5 million dollars arguing the restraints and helmets are too easily removed. They settle for 50 thousand, 25 of which goes to their lawyers and another 12 goes to the IRS.

  • Insurance companies, spooked by the risk, quadruple the price of liability coverage.

  • By the end of the next summer, hayrides have nearly all disappeared. A start-up firm attempts to market a Virtual Hayride app for the iPhone. It never catches on, despite an AnnArbor.com feature about all the jobs it will bringing to the area.

  • In the year 2032, somebody circulates a list regarding the characteristics of the high school graduating class. In addition to "Never heard of a fax machine" and "Vanuatu has always been underwater" there is "Never been on a hayride."

But that's just a guess.

(Addendum 1: For those of you have been following my occasional references to signaling and how so much of what we do is little more than identity proclamation, this situation is a face-slapping example.)

(Addendum 2: If you're interested in a humorous take on this sort of thing, I strongly recommend the comic novel Big Babies, by Sherwood Kiraly. It's a lighthearted, and good-hearted, story of a fellow who invents a head-to-toe protective covering for children. It's actually about the fellow's relationship with his brother, but the baby armor is the MacGuffin. Good work; similar to something I might write. Of course, like all good comic novels, it appears to be out of print.)

[Good Links] Link Slam

Link Slam: Michigan themed odds and sods from around the web...

You couldn't out drink an old lady from Michigan. No, seriously.

I'll spare you the walk-to-class-barefoot comparisons, but good grief the young 'uns got it made.

Apropos of last month's rant, someone noticed there's a new model Camry.

The Chicago Tribune discovers a 125 year old, continuously operating cider mill, about a mile from my house.

The New York Times spends 36 hours in Ann Arbor and loves anything that reminds them of New York.

Wednesday, September 07, 2011

The Month That Was - August 2011

The Month That Was - August 2011: The signs are all there. School starting. Football Saturdays. Cooler evenings. We march in steadily into fall. Next month I shall have to do a full assessment of my 50th summer. It also means the end of mowing is on the horizon.

Still waiting for next month are any book reviews. Add two more to the list: I'm Gone, by Jean Echenoz, and Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell by Susanna Clarke. I have things to say about both of them and the other books I've read over the past couple of months, but I have been loading this site with far too many book reviews so I holding off for a while. I may do a round-up at some point.

Meanwhile, this made me smile.

[Good Links] Don't Believe Everything You Think
[Travel] California Life
[Cars] The New Camrys Are Out!
[Travel] Grasping for Vegas

[Good Links] Don't Believe Everything You Think

Don't Believe Everything You Think: As you know I am a big fan of Robin Hanson's website Overcoming Bias. Although many topics are addressed over there, the Big Kahuna issue is described in this post:
More generally, we humans not only do things, we explain why we do things. Individuals and organizations stand ready to give reasons why we do each of the things we do. While such explanations are often self-serving, they are usually considered the standard default in ordinary conversation, popular media, and in academia.

The most powerful insufficiently-appreciated insight I've ever learned is the one intellectual legacy I'd leave, if I could leave only one: we are often wrong about why we do things. Yes it is hardly original, and it might sound trivial, but few appreciate its full depth.
This, if fully appreciated, is perhaps the single most audacious topic ever broached. It will require counter-intuitive thinking and openness to the potential truth of the "illogical" or "unreasonable" on roughly the same scale of something like quantum mechanics. The topics are also similar in that they are concepts we are not designed to comprehend. Consider the parallels. Nothing in the history of human experience would make spooky action at a distance or an upper bound to velocity or probabilistic existence intuitive by common sense. Similarly, through untold millennia we have developed the brain wiring that compels us towards certain forms of bias and self-delusion in social interactions. So how do you find The Truth when it requires outthinking your own brain? This stuff will make your head explode.

The question of why we think what we think is deeply pervasive; it's not just for big questions. Case in point, I recently had a discussion with a friend who was considering buying her daughter her first car. We discussed the propriety of it and how to decide on the right model, etc. My friend was zeroed in a new car, a safe and fuel efficient one. I blanched at the idea of buying a new car for a college sophomore. To paraphrase Louis CK, at that age all they have done is slurp things up for nearly two decades -- they slurp up food and money and clothes and ipods and done absolutely nothing in return except be snotty and disaffected. Now you want to let her slurp up a new car? At that age they should only be driving clap out piles of junk that cost less than the required insurance.

I suspect a majority of folks would have the same reaction. But why? What is the reason I feel so negatively about it. I could go on about the potential for spoilage, the need to teach self-sufficiency, and to reinforce the appreciation of benefits, and blah, blah, blah. But strictly considered, I have no objective basis for any of those opinions. I have never seen a rigorous scientific study of the effect on future development of buying a new car for a nineteen-year-old, nor have I seen some kind of regression analysis relating first car purchase price to long term happiness. Where do I get these opinions?

There are a number of angles to take on answering that question. (The answer "culture" is really a non-answer. A) Where did culture get those beliefs? and B) there is a body of scientific evidence to that strongly indicates many of our biases transcend culture.) One possible twist on it is that I am trying to send a signal about what sort of person I am. In the guise of reasoned analysis, I am really just shouting to the world of my frugality and sense of fairness. As Ed Harris (playing John Glenn) described himself in The Right Stuff, I'm "a lonely beacon of restraint and self-sacrifice in a squall of car-crazies." If true, this would also make me thoroughly insufferable.

Robin might point out that the hunter-gatherer societies of my ancestors had strong norms to suppress any notions of elitism and individuality and I might be tapped into those tendencies, as opposed to agricultural-industrial societies that value symbols of status.

Whatever the case, you can see this tiny, almost insignificant conversation is rife with unknowns. Imagine what happens when big issues come into play. We are constitutionally designed to have powerful and visceral reactions when our most cherished beliefs are called into question. Rationality and reason are going to be the first casualties, making further discussion self-defeating. On his blog Robin has addressed such things as the value of charity, the purpose of schools, the efficacy of medical treatment -- in all these cases, you may feel compelled to rethink what you think about why you are in favor of them, that is, if you can get past the primal indignation.

Of course, you can get all Meta with this. What's the real reason anyone is interested in real reasons? But that's pointlessly glib. The larger question is, given we actually develop a significant body of information in this arena, what do we do with it? Do we, out of devotion to The Truth, try to fight our programming when it seems irrational, or do we shrug and fatalistically trundle on as designed, under the assumption that evolution has already identified the best path? I have no idea. But whatever we do, I'm pretty sure it ends with my head exploding.

[Travel] California Life

California Life: Year 2 in getting Miss Anna settled at college, a new one on the West Coast, involved arranging a trip to Orange County -- Laguna Niguel, to be exact -- with about a week's notice. I really can't describe how such last minute decisions arise because I am incapable of understanding them; they are simply beyond my comprehension. I just accept.

I have been to So Cal many times, but I gravitate to San Diego. Laguna Niguel sits slightly inland from Laguna Beach and Dana Point, just south of the sprawl of L.A.

I don't get L.A. I was there once, saw most of it, but I don't understand the attraction it holds for some people. It seems to me like a place that is mostly notable for being notable. Decent weather, but you can get that in lots of places. Showy beaches, but you can get that in lots of places. Vibrant nightlife, but you can get... You see where I'm going with this. But I suppose if you are interested in being, or being around, a celebrity, or if you have some abiding interest in the entertainment industry it can make or break you. Apart from that, it's just a big crowded city with a sub-normal transportation profile.

Head south, though, and things start to make sense. As suburbs go, Laguna Niguel is a nice one. It is built up stem to stern into cleanly divided neighborhood style developments -- some town houses, some apartment complexes (nothing over two stories), some single family homes -- most of it among pleasant landscaping. Moderately to decidedly upscale. The hills roll gently among malls, shopping centers, office parks, etc. Roads are wide and navigation is straightforward. Most of the young folk in the area refer to it as a bubble, as if it was somehow isolated from the realities of the world around it. Young people say that derisively. Old folks know the world around it ain't so great.

Slide from inland to the shore and things get truly lovely. We bedded down each night in Dana Point at the Laguna Cliffs Marriott Resort, and let me say that in all my travels, I don't think I have encountered better service anywhere. Everyone seemed happy to go above and beyond, from the gift shop clerk who opened a nearby boutique just for us to the valets who packed huge boxes of stuff in the car without even being asked. Just outstanding in every respect. Throw in a sweet lounge with copious outdoor seating, a terrific breakfast buffet, and beautiful foliage and grounds you get a real top tier experience. A+ to Marriott for this one.

Here's another thing: No mosquitoes. All summer I have been unable to go into my back yard without drenching myself in Deep Woods Off. Here in So Cal there was nary a little bugger to slap. This lack of annoyance, along with the nearly persistent ocean breeze and the interminable sunshine, gives one a sense of why So Cal attracts those interested in a more relaxed lifestyle. If you really want to experience the attractive power of Southern California, the span between San Diego and L.A. is what you want to explore - Del Mar up to Laguna Beach. As skeptical as I have been (and still am to some extent) of California life, had I come to this area as a young man with an unconstrained future, I may have just stayed in the bubble. It's that good. I fear we may have seen the last of Anna.

[Cars] The New Camrys Are Out!

The New Camrys Are Out!: So what? Outside of car journals, the release of a new model Camry will get a collective yawn and an article or two and a few repackaged press releases. Whether Toyota has been affected by the twin terrors of unintended acceleration and earthquake/tidal wave/nuclear meltdowns doesn't seem to have ratcheted up the popular interest. Nearly all newsworthy events are only fractionally as important as their coverage suggests. The release of a new model of what is still the most popular car in the U.S. by a long shot and probably the most successful car in history appears to be getting the opposite treatment.

Well, maybe it's just me. As you know, I have owned Camrys for nearly 19 years now. That amounts to two cars -- a '93 and an '02. In some circles, people like me are referred to as "beige". I prefer "unpretentious". Were it not for the damn house, I would probably be looking into getting Camry number 3 right now, but it's not a slam dunk anymore. I would consider other cars in that class now -- Hyundai Sonata, Ford Fusion (or maybe even Taurus), Nissan Altima - mainly because my current '02 Camry, while trusty as a Border Collie, is not up to the build quality of the '93. That car was a revelation to me, and that generation Camry was something of a high-water mark in automotive quality.

The fact of the matter is that things have changed so much over the years that buying a new car doesn't make much sense in most normal circumstances. Actually, unless it's a total basket case, the thing that almost always makes the most sense is keeping the car you have, if you own it outright, and just paying for repairs as they come. Even if you have to budget $2000 a year for repairs and maintenance, you're still ahead of having car payments. This is evidenced in the market by the fact the used car prices are historically high.

So you've got a lot going on. You've got Toyota trying to recover from a dubious-at-best scandal and a natural disaster, you've got competitors that have leveled the field, and you've got the industry evolving in such a way that used cars are where all the action is. In the midst of this, the premier car of its time gets a redesign. You would think there would be more interest.

Anyway, here are three reviews of the new Camry that I found insightful: at TTAC, at AutoSavant, and an alternative at TTAC.

As for me, I am strictly in the keep it running as long as you can camp, thanks to the house. Although, if I happened to stumble across a VERY low mileage version of one of those 3rd generation Camrys (92-96), I'd probably jump on it. Maybe I should start trolling the used car lots down in the Florida for a little ol' lady special. It'd be good for a couple hundred thousand miles, which is to say, it might be the last car I ever drive.

Tangentially, Curbside Classic posted an inspired recap of the most notorious auto liability scandals. It caused me to reminisce wistfully about my old Pinto.

[Travel] Grasping for Vegas

Grasping for Vegas: It's been an outlier of a year for me, especially in the realm of travel. Basically I've done little and what I have done hasn't really been anything all that new. I even missed my traditional Memorial Day in Manhattan and Labor Day in Chicago jaunts, primarily due to the house and other scheduling issues. So naturally I am desperate to at least renew my longest standing tradition: Thanksgiving in Vegas. Especially since things in Vegas seem to be penduluming back to the upswing.

There has been a spate of interesting news that suggests that the doldrums that set in after the overbuilding around the turn of the millennium might be over. You'll recall that several years ago, everyone had huge plans for sprawling development complexes. The Harrah's group had something called Echelon Place planned on the north strip designed to compete directly with City Center, which was going to be MGM's attempt at recreating the Greenwich Village mid-Strip. George Clooney and a group were putting together plans for a resort along Harmon corridor (the "hip strip", gag me) which was going to require coat and tie and bring a taste of old school class back to Vegas. Hilton and Marriott had luxury hotel plans. Not surprisingly, virtually all these dreams popped along with the real estate bubble. The hit was doubled when Macau came on as a high end gambling destination, robbing Vegas of a chunk of Asian business.

Some projects managed to survive, although the reasoning behind not axing them may have been questionable. City Center morphed from a high concept remake of Manhattan into a set of hotels and shops, but at least it made it. One of the hotels, Aria, stole a good deal of high-stakes poker mojo from Bellagio, and another super-high ender, the Mandarin Oriental, set a new standard for the casino-less traditional luxury set, which had previous been owned by Four Seasons. It also ended up with an independent neighbor, The Cosmopolitan, designed to complete with Wynn and featuring the only rooms on the strip with balconies. Everything else was pretty much cancelled or is sitting in limbo like an underwater house.

But, there are signs of life. A number of properties took the opportunity to do full on renovations (The Tropicana on the Strip and the Plaza downtown). A number of places re-did their rooms (Bellagio, Mirage, some MGM). Caesars is opening a new tower in January. But the big project that appears as though it may see the light of day is The Linq. A truly stupid name, but this is Caesars half-a-billion dollar renovation of the area surrounding the Flamingo, O'Sheas, and Imperial Palace (Dr. Hahn's evil fortress) -- you may know the area as Carnival Court. If you ever walked the Strip in that area you know there is a point where you are required to snake through a deeply annoying open air shopping center with cheap carnival booths and a decent outdoor bar with mediocre live bands playing (although there is a Ghirardelli's). Apparently the plan is to turn that into a full on outdoor shopping/social area that contains the world's largest observation wheel.
When that's all sorted out and The Linq makes its debut in June 2013 (fingers crossed, altho, Caesars says the project is already fully funded), it will feature up to 40 restaurants, bars, retailers and nightlife options. But, where the brilliance may lie is in the percentages. The Linq will be 70 percent restaurants and bars, many featuring rooftop lounges and open air dining. i.e., the perfect stopping point for tourists on foot looking for a bit of refreshment after wandering The Strip. Caesars' own numbers say some 20 million folks walk past that location a year. ka-ching
More info is here.

70% of 40 = 28 bars and restaurants. Niiiice. That won't help me until 2013 or so, but it's good that things are looking up. For now I'm anxious to check out the new hotels and restaurants this November.

Lastly, I find I am going to have to hate Bill Barnwell from Grantland, and formerly of Football Outsiders. He has apparently up and moved to the Strip to gamble on football and write about it full time. Yes, I hate him. Righteously so.

Saturday, August 06, 2011

The Month That Was - July 2011

The Month That Was - July 2011: So the summer peak has passed. It has been the hottest July on record for this area, but there is no denying the growing shortness of daylight. For this month, let me tell you about what I am not going to tell you about.

I am not going to write about the long weekend I took in Rehoboth Beach, DE. In terms of activities it was little different than the trip I took there back in February (apart from a somewhat disastrous 5K run with an overarching Penn State influence). I am not going to do any book reviews. I have been reading, of course. Specifically: It's All Greek to Me by Charlotte HIggins, Half-Made World by Felix Gilman, Driving Like Crazy by P.J. O'Rourke, The Emperor of All Maladies by Siddhartha Mukherjee, and Playback by Raymond Chandler. I will drench you with comments on these and others in the near future, but I have been putting too many book reviews up so -- a break from that this month. I am not going to talk about my writing project since I left it in percolation mode (that means I ignored it) all month.

Most importantly, I am not going to talk about my lawn.

[TV] Comedies Tonight
[Tech] Phone Fristration
[House and Home] Critter Wars
[Good Links] Premium Clickage

[TV] Comedies Tonight

Comedies Tonight: Consider Seinfeld the mold-busting, outside-the-box, ur-comedy. Here's where some recent comedies exist in relation to it.

It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia -- Seinfeld, if it was populated by degenerate douchebags. It's many years into its run and is getting a little long in the tooth, but at its best it's a good as obnoxious cretin comedy can be. Danny DeVito remains one of the most unfairly unheralded comic actors in history.

Workaholics-- Seinfeld, if it was populated by pathetic weenies dimwits. Or maybe it's more like The Office if all the characters were given lobotomies. Or maybe it's just a serialized combination of The Jerk and Dumb and Dumber. I gotta bet one or all of those descriptions was use to pitch this show. Is it odd I would find such a show funny? Not really. As with the Always Sunny... guys, the hapless characters make you drop your guard and the timing, with a certain ad-libbed feel to it, is good for drop dead guffaws.

Wilfred -- Kind of an anti-Seinfeld. The main hobbit from Lord of the Rings is a suicidal depressed nebbish. His hot neighbor has a dog, which everyone else sees as a dog, but he sees as an adult man in dog suit who pretty much takes over his pathetic life and shows him how to live. Essentially, it's Mr. Ed, if Mr. Ed was an id manifestation and a drug fiend. Not Seinfeld at all, just run of the mill episodic sitcom, lots of toilet humor, and a lesson in every episode -- pretty standard stuff except for the dog gimmick. Its value comes from relieving you from ever watching Lord of the Rings again without picturing Mr. Frodo bonging himself silly next to a guy in a dog costume.

Louie -- Seinfeldian in that it stars a stand-up comic and is often bookended by shots of his live performance. I suppose it is also related in that it can be a strange sort of comedy of manners, although from a more personal perspective than a social one. Some people rave about this. I'm not so sure. It's less outright comical and more intriguing. It's like someone took the "it's funny, because it's true" aspect of comedy and went whole hog on the "it's true" end of things. Which makes it almost more of a dramedy. I'm really not sure what to make of Louie. At times cerebral, at times farcical, at times surreal, at times dull. It's rarely flat-out funny, but it is oddly fascinating.

Curb Your Enthusiam -- Seinfeld Part 2. (If you didn't know, Larry David was one of the producers of Seinfeld and the original model for George Castanza.) I can either love or hate this show. When it narrows it's scope and focuses intensely on Larry David's neuroses it gets tedious. This season, I'm loving it. It's getting ensemble-y as Larry's friends kind of take larger roles now that his divorce is done. It makes you realize how much he brought to the table with Seinfeld. In fact, his Curb ensemble has many similarities. He's George, of course. His buddy Jeff is roughly Jerry. His insane "urban" houseguest, Leon, is Kramer. Richard Lewis is, effectively, Elaine. Funkhouser is roughly Putty, in my estimation. Honestly, at its best, Curb... matches Seinfeld and kind of makes you wish they had kept going after all. At its worst it's just a bland exercise in discomfort comedy, but this season has been one of the best.

Archer -- Absolutely hands down the show that makes me laugh the most (which is kind of the main point of comedy). An animated super-spy agency satire. Ungodly comic timing, especially from H. Jon Benjamin as the voice of Sterling Archer. Also, a show that's not afraid to make obscure allusions and count on the audience to get it. For example this exchange:
Cyril: I'm not sure that's technically irony.
Archer: What? This is like O Henry and Alanis Morissette had a baby and named it this exact situation.
Or flat out comedy:
Cyril: Will I get to learn karate?
Archer: Karate? The Dane Cook of martial arts? No, ISIS agents use Krav Maga.
Cyril: Krav..?
Archer: We've got an ex-MOSSAD guy, comes in on Thursday.
Cyril: Neato.
Archer: Yeah, Tuesdays he does a really rigorous spin class.
This will lose everything in the translation, but if you see the scene, you will have witnessed perfect comic timing:
Archer: Shut up, I have to go. And if I find one single dog hair when I get back, I'll rub sand in your dead little eyes.
Woodhouse (Archer's butler): Very good, sir.
Archer: I also need you to go buy sand. I don't know if they grade it... but... ... ... coarse.
That last one may be one of the funniest exchanges in comedy history. I could quote these guys all day. Nothing really to do with Seinfeld, except in the "nobody hugs, nobody learns" sense. Just funny, funny people turned loose on funny, funny scripts.

So what have we learned from this brief survey? Not much. I was looking for a common thread that might define the current fashion of comedy and I don't see one. For quite a while now, traditional gags and sketch comedy have been out of favor. Comedy has had a tendency to be some combination of potty humor (especially in the movies) and situation discomfort. But while the above shows contain elements of those two, there is something more there. Absurd narcissism is big too - there's a fair amount of goings on where the comedy stems from self-absorbed characters debating the meaningless aspects of their own concerns while disaster and drama sweep around them. And of course, irony; we still live in a hyper-ironic age (like O Henry and Alanis Morissette had a baby...). There is nothing earth-shattering about these shows but they are at least creative, some uniquely so. If there is no game-changer here, at least nobody is operating off a formulaic concept. The state of TV comedy is sound and promising.

[Tech] Phaone Frustration

Phone Frustration: T-Mobile has been the bane of my existence. I have always had a weak signal at my office. But over the last few months it has become non-existent, despite the fact that their coverage map indicates that I should have four bar reception. In fact, I get no reception in about a 1 mile radius around my office. Beyond that, it quickly reverts to normal. So essentially that means that unless I go out to lunch, I am incommunicado most of the day. I have delivery jockeys and repair grunts who need to contact me and I can't just give out my cell, because their messages won't reach me until I get home at night.

An online chat with a T-mobile rep over this problem was comically useless. I am not certain the rep actually understood what a cell phone was. I explained that I get no signal. He asked if I was able to make calls. I said no, you can't make calls without a signal. He asked if I have data access. I said no. He asked what happens when I try to go to the web. I said I don't have data access, just calls and text. He asked if I could do something using jargon I never heard of. I said no. I have no signal. I cannot make calls. I cannot send texts. I cannot do anything with my phone. He asked if was able to make any calls at all. At this point I asked whether he understood what I meant when I said I have no signal and whether he had any experience using a cell phone. I am not sure he wasn't just jerking me around. He asked me to read him the id number from the sim chip in my phone. I asked him if it was really necessary for me to do that, which of course it was, to him. So I pulled the sim chip out of my phone and read him the number. He then said I would be contacted within seven days with follow-up. Naturally I never heard from them again.

The more I think about it the more I think he was just yanking my chain for entertainment's sake, waiting for the pink slip to come after the AT&T merger gets approved. I am half-tempted to get back on line and jerk one of their reps around for good measure, but I doubt I'd get the same one.

Here's the problem. I'd go with AT&T or Verizon in a heartbeat, but I pay less than $200 per year in prepaid charges. That would go up significantly with either AT&T or Verizon since every day I use the phone would be another dollar. Sprint, Virgin, etc., all have poor or non-existent coverage in my area so I'd be back in the same boat with them.

I don't know what to do. If I go with and AT&T or Verizon prepaid plan, I'll be paying more than I am now for the same thing. Well, not really the same thing because there won't be a huge portion of the day where I have no signal. But still, if I am going to pay more, shouldn't I just go all the way and get a smartphone? But that'll run me about $80/month for the most basic service with data. Considering I am an extremely light phone user, and will likely be an equally light data user, it just seems outrageous. For a two year contract, plus whatever it costs for the phone itself, that'll be around two grand more than I'm paying now. And didn't I go most of my life without a cell phone? I should be dropping thousands of dollars for one now, when I have a big fat mortgage payment? Two grand would cover some furnishings.

You see the convoluted situation? I have no doubt that it's time to get smart; either a cheap, used iPhone or maybe an Android of some sort. It'll pain me to do it, though.

[House and Home] Critter Wars

Critter Wars: I never signed up to abandon civilization. First it was bears and feral pigs. Now we have rabid bats. The latest one was hornets, and it hit close to home. Specifically right in my back yard.

I had just finished mowing the lawn in 90 degree heat, very proud that I got it done in under 2 hours. So I took the weed-whipper out to hit the edging around the trees and in the backyard next to my deck I look up and see the most terrifyingly enormous hornets nest in recorded history, hanging off a low lying branch. Click here to see what it looked like. A hideous construct. Like a miniature version of a hive from Aliens. Amazingly I had just mowed all around it, my head had to be within a couple of feet of it at some point, and never even noticed it was there. It's a wonder I didn't get swarmed. In fact, that's exactly what the hornet guy told me.

Yeah, I hired a hornet guy. You see I did some internet research on how to rid myself of these critters and the advice boiled down to: 1) Wait until dusk when they are all back in their nest, 2) Wear thick clothing, 3) Wear eye protection, 4) Make sure you spray directly into the entry hole, 5) Wear your running shoes in case you miss. As if that wasn't enough, the Hornet Guy explained to me that when they go on the attack, hornets target the carbon dioxide from your exhales, so they head straight for the mouth and nose.

Nooope. No way. You handle it, Hornet Guy. I'll watch from the living room window.

Hornet Guy followed none of the rules. He did it mid-morning, in a t-shirt and jeans, without any eyewear. He did not, however, miss. He nailed the nest first time with some kind of dust, not a spray. He then backed away to give the beasties a little time to die in peace. Finally he went back and essentially beat the now defunct nest of the tree limb with a stick. And that was that. He got buzzed by a couple a strays that had avoided the dusting, but he didn't get stung.

Less dramatic, but more vexing, is the fact that the "Coral Carpet" perennial ground cover I planted in the front garden is getting nibbled at by some spiteful creature of unknown genus. At first I though it was probably bunnies -- evil bunnies -- but it might be birds. I don't think it's the deer, but I haven't ruled them out. Nice to know that I spent a days worth of time and money planting these things only to have it turn out to be expensive bird food.

Honestly, it's all enough to make a guy yearn for a concrete jungle. Which reminds me, I miss Manhattan.

[Good Links] Premium Clickage

Premium Clickage: Assorted odds and ends, haphazardly gathered over the past couple of months.

  • From 1954 to 1998 the most popular name for boys in the US was Michael, except for one year: 1960 -- the year I was born. The name that that was tops that year? David. Just from my first name, you could take a good guess at my age. Interestingly by 1989 David had dropped from the top five, never to return.
  • I happen to think Roger Ebert is a braying ass who happens to write an excellent movie review, which includes, as a subtalent, blow-coke-out-your-nose put-downs.
  • Detroit just keeps on giving. "[T]he working-class district on the southeast corner of Eight Mile Road and the I-75 Service Drive... made international news last month after FOX 2 publicized its citizens' very loud cry for help. A hand-painted billboard visible from the highway that read: WARNING THIS AREA INFESTED BY CRACKHEADS." Turns out the house is owned by BGE properties, a company in Lathrup Village (used to be a very nice suburban enclave next to Southfield back in the '60s/'70s). The reporter's official queries to BGE were taken by someone calling himself "Broadway Benjamin." No, really. I can't imagine how crackheads got in there.
  • A couple of good articles popped up regarding the current Best Show on TV, Breaking Bad. At Grantland, " Because TV is so simultaneously personal (it exists inside your home) and so utterly universal (it exists inside everyone's home), people care about it with an atypical brand of conversational ferocity...". At The New York Times, "Television is really good at protecting the franchise," [series creator Vince] Gilligan said. "It's good at keeping the Korean War going for 11 seasons, like 'M*A*S*H.' It's good at keeping Marshal Dillon policing his little town for 20 years. By their very nature TV shows are open-ended. So I thought, Wouldn't it be interesting to have a show that takes the protagonist and transforms him into the antagonist?" The show is currently in negotiations over how it's final season will play out. Don't start watching live at the point. Stream it from season one to catch up. It's worth it.
  • Since I skipped out on any book reviews this time, you might read this appreciation, and accurate updating, of Class: A Guide Through the American Status System, by Paul Fussell, a wonderful book on the difference class attributes in the U.S. (cultural not political, except tangentially). It first came out in 1983. I think I read it around '85. But I remember much of it to this day, and see its accuracy still. Sharp and witty, fast and fascinating. Should you read it? Yes, unqualified.

Monday, July 04, 2011

The Month That Was - June 2011

The Month That Was - June 2011: Another busy month. I now have a tenant in my old condo and so am officially a slumlord, of sorts. I've been working on repairs of the old place and maintenance and doing minor upgrades -- the hardest part of which is trying to get everyone's timing right. But by and large, that's going well, which is good because if I tried to sell the place now I'd take a big fat loss. On the other hand, it might be better to take the loss, and the tax benefit, and start getting return on whatever money I could get out of it. I could debate the prospects endlessly, simultaneously curing your insomnia.

Here in the greater Dexter area, the big news this month was the appearance of a bear. Just a young'un. They are guessing about a two year old, probably just recently off in the world on his own. There were reports of a momma, but that hasn't been verified. Of course we were immediately inundated with public service messages about how to handle encounters. It was a minor pop culture phenomenon and most everyone I know was thrilled. (Me? Not so much. See below.)

I am effectively done with the first draft of my latest writing project. I'm not ready to talk about it extensively, but I will say it's not like what I have done before. In fact, it isn't really even original fiction. It will be Kindle only, I know that. And if the audience for my novels was in the dozens, the audience for this will be lucky to crack double digits. With each passing work, writing makes me feel like Don Quixote.

Speaking of books, I read a ton this month. You get hit with the standard two reviews but there was a third book I finished which was solely to indulge my inner child. A while back I read the entire series of "independent reader" books by Rick Riordan featuring Percy Jackson and the Olympians. (All my adult friends were reading Harry Potter, so I had to be different.) Like all such books, they are completely manipulative and contrived (which is what young readers need), but so what, they were entertaining. He's started a second series in the same universe, The Lost Hero being the first. I won't bother to review it until I've completed the whole series which will probably be years away since the second book doesn't come until fall and there will probably be five total. Still, highly recommended for a young reader (say 10-12) or as a bedtime series for a younger child (say 6-8).

I do realize I've been deluging your with book reviews the last few months. Maybe next month we can get some TV reviews going. Or something else new. Worse comes to worse, I could go back to writing about football (oh, wait...).

[Books] Book Look: Positively Fifth Street
[Books] Book Look: How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe
[Rant] A Day in My Life
[Dexter] Bear Bearings
[Detroit] Spitting on the Hand that Feeds It

[Books] Book Look: Positively Fifth Street

Book Look: Positively Fifth Street, by Jim McManus: My new official favorite poker book. Jim McManus was a writer and teacher at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and serious amateur poker player when he scored a gem of an assignment from Harper's magazine: cover the World Series of Poker along with the sensational murder trial in the death Ted Binion, the now former owner of the casino where the World Series was happening. In addition to his journalistic duties, he uses the side games to parlay his magazine advance into buy in for the big tournament. Participatory journalism.

The core thread of the book is McManus' path through the tournament, but every curious and informative side angle is given treatment. We get some background on the history of poker, especially with its evolution from Texas roadhouses to Vegas glitz. We get brief descriptions of some of the legendary players. We get some bio background on McManus himself. We get a thorough discussion of the b-story: the sordid murder of Ted Binion.

The Binion family plays a key role in turning poker from Wild West anarchy into a glamorous and semi-respectable pastime. It was at their Horseshoe Casino in downtown Vegas where the WSOP experienced its meteoric growth in popularity. In the case of Ted, however, along with his skill at managing gaming risk, politicians, mobsters, and poor-schmuck gamblers, came a predilection for fast drugs and expensive women.

Binion was murdered by his lowlife simian bodyguard and sleazy hooker girlfriend, who were cheating on him and after his millions. The details of both the murder itself (at least as imagined by McManus) and their behavior during and after are borderline comic absurdity. Honestly, if I was to script the most cliche-laden cop show murder I could imagine, it would be what played out in real life among these three.

It sounds like a confused gumbo of topics but they link up serendipitously. McManus, it turns out is a pretty solid family man, but he must react to and try to understand the lurid Binion case, the business of throwing great gobs of money on to the table, and some sordid casino types, which eventually ends up with him getting in trouble with his wife for having a lap dance at one of those sprawling Vegas strip clubs. He is good on the topics of temptation and weakness, both subtle and gross.

Also serendipitous is that this is a document of a certain activity at a kind of peak. This was a point in the short but beautiful run of truly glamorous poker, and of the monstrous popularity of Vegas itself. Over the subsequent few years, random nondescript internet players would swamp every tournament but at the turn of the millennium it was still dominated by colorful big names. And even as late as 2000, Binion's was loaded with old Vegas atmosphere and tradition. By 2004 the WSOP would be sold to casino giant Harrah's and the Horseshoe to another gaming giant. Reading Positively Fifth Street now one can't help but sense that Those Were the Days.

At playing cards McManus does very, very well, perhaps a bit to his own surprise. He makes the final table finishing fifth and winning a boat load of prize money in the process. McManus leans on some low-end playing experience but what is most engaging is that he constantly goes back to poker literature and how-to strategy guides for inspiration. Throughout the tournament he often finds himself heads-up with big name players whose books and advice he's idolized. Best of all is how absolutely normal a player he reveals himself to be, at least in the sense of his moment to moment actions. He accidentally string bets (acts like he's going to call then raises), doesn't quite identify all the possible hands (never mind get the probabilities right), he makes bets when he knows he shouldn't and checks when he knows he should raise. In other words, he plays just like me (and probably you). It's endearing. He is also exceptionally skilled at describing the action -- very exciting stuff.

Should you read Positively Fifth Street? Yep. If you like poker, or are curious about poker, or gambling in general, or Vegas in general, or maybe even as true crime it'll work for you. But what it's really about is the temptation of vice. Ted Binion yielded completely and fatally to vice. McManus is willing to risk pretty much his whole advance to get into the tournament but, at his most libertine, can't go beyond a lap dance. Where do you fall on the spectrum? If you've ever been tempted by the dark side, you will recognize feelings that drive the people in this book.

[Books] How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe

Book Look: How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe, by Charles Yu: Just when you think there was nothing left to make out of time travel stories, somebody comes up with something new. The protagonist uses time travel for the purpose of avoiding pain and hiding from life, or, as he describes it, living chronologically.

The protagonist, also named Yu, has deep connections to time travel. His father devoted his life to the invention of a time machine only to have it fail when demo-ing it to an investor. It turns out someone else had been working on similar idea and ended up with the glory. Devastated by this failure, his father used his machine to disappear into a parallel time/space and Yu's been searching for him ever since. His mother, given to depression and passive aggression, has locked herself into a time loop to escape her own pain. For Yu's part, he's become a time machine repairman, which seems to mostly consist of popping in on other time travelers when their machines have broken down because they tried to change the past. All the while, he lives his entire life inside his own time machine, with its hyper-feminine artificial intelligence for a girlfriend and a holographic, yet "ontologically valid", dog as a companion.

The narrative is alternately loaded down with ironic and semi-satirical time travel/metaphysical exposition, which ranges from snicker-worthy to tedious (although mostly the former). As Yu flits from universe to universe you lose track of the when and where of things (kind of like Inception), but that's OK. The metaphoric aspect of the time travel is what counts here. It's very well done and quite clever, the way he keeps the story human.

Should you read How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe? You'll need a strong streak of geek, or the time travel aspect will chase you away. Otherwise yes, it's an engaging book all the way around, with a thoughtful core about our inability to escape the past; getting lost in time and fear of moving forward; playing it safe. So we beat on, time machines against entropic swells, borne ceaselessly into nonlinear reality.

[Rant] A Day in My Life

A Day in My Life: A simple description of a typical Saturday, for no good reason. Nothing terribly interesting happens. Just trying to personalize things a bit.

I sleep in, which means I don't worry about getting out of bed until 9. I can get up earlier, but only if feel like it. Since it's Saturday and I pretty much won't have any significant social interaction with anyone who cares, I don't shave and cover my mangy head with a baseball cap. I have a beloved friend who has told me I look ridiculous in hats, and it's almost certainly true, but like I said, today is a grub day. I slap on a t-shirt, cargo shorts and sandals and hop in the Camry. I immediately remember that it is due for an oil change and its annual detailing. I vow to get it done next week, as I have each of the last three of weeks.

Sleeping late also means I have little time to waste so breakfast will be fast food. I stop at the McDonalds near my office. I eat a good deal of fast food. Perhaps too much, but I am not of the belief that it is inherently unhealthy. If you don't overindulge and supersize things, you don't get a ton of calories and as long as you make up for it by veggie oriented eating the rest of the time, you're fine. Plus, you get in and out in 10 minutes and spend about $4. I rarely carry-out; I almost always order at the counter and eat in. I keep a book with me in the car and I take the opportunity to knock off a chapter while I'm shoveling the breakfast burrito in my face. The current book is How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe (reviewed above).

From McDonald's to the office. I have a leftover issue that I probably won't be able to resolve until Monday which will be a bit of a black mark for me, so I'll see if any brilliant solution comes to me by staring at my computer screen. Joyfully, I arrive to an email that says one of my employees has gone above-and-beyond to take care of it. A big dose of awesome. Now I can use the extra time to get some personal stuff done. I have a tenant renting my condo and, not realizing I needed to, I never notified the condo association. This resulted in a sternly worded letter and some paperwork to fill out, so I take the opportunity to shamelessly use the company fax machine to send the stuff over. I then hop on the web to try to get the utilities switched over but it turns out I can't do that without the tenant's SSN. I'll be seeing the tenant tomorrow when I get the garage cleared out so I'll deal with it then.

Speaking of shameless, I go to the candy machine and see that there is a dangling bag of M&Ms. That means I can get two bags for the price of one, which approximates theft, but then these machines have shorted me regularly enough in the past so it's probably more of a wash. I briefly munch on M&Ms while I surf the web in my ongoing hunt for a cheap smartphone plan for ATT or Verizon (I have given up on T-Mobile) when I receive an email from another dear friend who is about to move to England for three years along with her husband and two-year old. She points out that the 2012 Olympics in London would be the perfect opportunity for a visit, and I immediate realize that I will be semi-obsessed with trying to plan it for the next few weeks. We'll see. But the cumulative force of everything I have yet to do drives me out of the office and back on the road in short order.

I plan to hit Abbot's Nursery, but I'm zoning out to Sirius and zip right past the freeway exit so I continue on to Bed Bath and Beyond where I need to buy a shower caddy. The one I want only comes in brushed nickel and everything else in my master bath is polished brass, so I just buy an inexpensive one as a placeholder until I find what I want, then I'll move the cheap one to the upstairs bathroom. I also snag some placemats since I ate dinner the other night on two layers of paper towels. I am disgusted with the level of girliness I am displaying. Worse, I forgot my coupons.

I check out and throw the housewares in the trunk and backtrack to Abbott's. I had some landscaping ideas early in the season, but after a fair amount of rotting wood siding was discovered, I decided I would hold off on any major landscaping projects until that gets sorted out and I see where I am with money. Still, I have some serious bare patches in my gardens that it wouldn't hurt to address if only in a small way. I see some good stuff at Abbott's -- I like the Asian Lillys and some of the other perennials, but I quickly realize I need to make some measurements and maybe even sketches before I make any decisions.

So I head back home to address lawn and garden issue number one: getting the sprinklers going. Programming them turns out to be a breeze, the problem is that, while the program kicks in and countdowns occur as expected, no water is coming out of the nozzles. There is a valve somewhere to turn on the water, but the problem is I have no idea where it is. Fifteen minutes or so of searching about doesn't help and I can't find any documentation so I'm stuck. I make a call to the local sprinkler guy, get voice mail, and leave a message. Frustrated, I take the opportunity to call for another bit of maintenance I have been meaning to get done: have an external keypad set up for my garage door.

I call the local garage door guy and he makes me read some numbers off the garage door closer to him. He tells me $45 if I just want the unit and install it myself, another $45 for him to install it. Since I have no bloody clue how to install one or even where to find the wires I tell him to do it. He says he'll be over shortly. I use the interval to re-pot a lucky bamboo, and to spray vinegar on some weeds that have intruded into the cracks in my driveway. (Vinegar is supposed to be a cheap, organic trick for slaying weeds.)

The garage door guy appears and it takes him all of ten minutes. It turns out these things are wireless. "Installation" involves nothing more than screwing it into the door frame. The joke is on me. I would call it a life lesson but odds are I will never have to install a garage door opener so it's really just a loss. I write the guy a check.

Having failed to get the sprinklers working and having gotten soaked on the door opener keypad, I need to blow off some steam. I decide to bike to Pinckney Rec Area, about 8 miles away, do a criminally hilly five mile trail run around Crooked Lake, then ride back. Sure enough, as soon as I'm ready to leave, the sprinkler guy calls back. His turn to get voice mail; I'm geared up to go.

The ride over is pretty sweet and quick and I'm feeling good. I lock up my bike and walk by the shore of Silver Lake passing all the swimmers and picnickers and find the Crooked Lake trailhead. I set a steady rate, about nine minute miles, knowing full it won't last through the hills. And it doesn't. Between the hills -- some so steep you could only technically call my pace a run -- and the bugs -- this passes through essentially a thickly wooded swamp -- I finish in at a 10 minute mile average, which is exactly what I ran when I did the organized race here a couple of months ago. At least his time I have the excuse of the bike ride and the bugs to slow me down. The good news is that I crossed paths with what looked to be a turkey hen and about eight chicks. They say there are a ton of turkeys around this year. In fact, Washtenaw County is rich with wildlife -- coyotes, fox, turkeys, and scariest of all, feral pigs. And now we have a bear or two for the first time in living memory.

Sucking down about a gallon of water from the fountain I make a note-to-self that it's time to start swimming outside. Silver Lake is where all the triathletes train swimming laps around the buoys and I'm tired of the pool. The ride home is, if anything, nicer that the ride there.

I get back and I am tired. 16 miles of riding and five miles of hard hill running. It's quarter to seven and I need some food. I'm not up for cooking so I decide to treat myself to one of my favorites: Pad Thai from No Thai at North Campus. I take the scenic route along the river to get there. Chicken Pad Thai, medium spicy, Diet Coke. I sit and eat and read another chapter.

Before I'm done for the evening I have to follow my discipline. On the way home I stop at Barnes and Noble, further treat myself to a piece of key lime pie, and work on my writing project (still not at the point I can discuss it, but my confidence level is about 95%). The next time I look up it's 9PM. I drive home, stop and pick up my mail, pay a couple of bills on line, including an outrageous one to a periodontist that I have very mixed feelings about. I pack my gear for a 10AM class at the gym tomorrow and now I am toast. I crack open a beer and zone in front of the TV to write this overlong post.

At this exact moment I look up and it's 2AM and Empire Strikes Back is being re-run in HD. Obi Wan says "That boy is our last hope." Yoda replies "No, there is another." I change the channel to High Stakes Poker at Bellagio. Doyle Brunson has a set but he doesn't realize someone else has the same set with a higher kicker. Or maybe he does because he mucks it. I would have gone broke on that hand.

It's bedtime. My final thoughts: 1) I ate poorly today; something that I will correct tomorrow -- double up on veggies, 2) I left the damn shower caddy in the trunk of my car. Sigh. Goodnight.

[Dexter] Bear Bearings

Bear Bearings: It was first spotted at Hudson Mills Metro Park. There were two witnesses, but when the rangers searched, they saw no evidence. People I know dismissed it as probably just a big labradoodle. Then somebody got a photo. It was a young black bear; an adolescent probably just newly on his own. PSAs went out about what to do in a bear encounter. The reactions were telling.

It became a minor phenomenon. Everyone I know said it was cool. A twitter feed and facebook page popped up. T-shirts are still available.

Internet forums then began lighting up with people who tried to be even cooler by mocking the furor and claiming not to understand why everyone thinks it's a big deal. Often they peppered their comments with humble brags about how much time they spent up north where bears are more common and yet they never had any problem.

The DNR set up a trap with the intent of catching it and putting a collar on it.

What nobody did was even consider that the bear is dangerous and should be caught and removed from the area. No, we are supposed to live in harmony with it. After all, ask anyone and they will tell you it just wants to get along with us. Clearly it's an Animal Planet planet.

Here's a new flash. IT'S A BEAR, ok? A BEAR. It doesn't know it's supposed to just live and let live. It doesn't have a sense of its place in the community. It doesn't do any sort of moral reasoning at all. It is a highly intelligent predatory creature that, even as an adolescent, is higher on the food chain than anything else around here.

Sure enough, after the fun and games reality begins to set in. Less than a mile up the road from me, some poor woman had her chicken coop raided and destroyed. She now says that the Momma bear is present also, although the DNR hasn't verified that. This is how it starts. Note the quote: "They'll come right in front of my door and sit down. They'll let me get in a foot of them; they're not afraid of me at all." I cannot emphasize this enough: THIS IS NOT A GOOD THING.

Here's how this will play out. Somebody will find a half-eaten Chihuahua on their back porch. Or maybe somebody's golden retriever will barrel through their electric fence and into the woods, never to return. Then it will start to dawn on people. There might even be an outcry to remove the bear(s), but probably they'll just blame the dog owners. What the poo-poo'ers and nature ennoblers don't realize is that they are being completely cavalier about the danger to human life. What are they going to say when someone child happens to be playing in the back yard when Momma Bear comes by? Are they going to take responsibility for treating their fantasy version of nature as reality? No, of course not. They'll probably blame the parents for not watch more closely because, as we all know, all good parents should be capable of keeping a 24/7 watch on their children.

There is a reason human beings have gathered in cities and built fences and weapons. Nature is not on our side. Not when we were wandering the African veldt 25,000 years ago and not in Dexter, Michigan in 2011. Live and let live is not an option, no matter what Animal Planet tells you.

Besides, don't we have enough trouble with feral pigs?