Wednesday, April 06, 2011

The Month That Was - March 2011

The Month That Was - March 2011: I was hoping to have Misspent Youth available on Kindle by now, and I am this close but not there yet. Current target is Monday the 11th. Planned price is $4.84, just like Business as Usual and Apple Pie.

Note: You know you don't need a Kindle to read Kindle books, right? There is free software for everything from PCs to iPhones that lets you buy and read kindle books.

It's been a rough month with the house, but at last there is progress. The mud room is finally complete, more furniture is ordered (this will get me about half way to furnished), and a horrendous rattle in water pipe was solved without having to tear up the floorboards in the living room (fingers crossed). I still have a torturous pinging when the furnace kicks off and my lawn tractor is in the shop, but I am in a much better frame of mind about it than I was mid-month.

Also, I note that my home of Dexter, MI is the fastest growing municipality in Michigan. That's kind of like being the best ski resort in Tahiti, but still.

And I got to travel this month (although I really had no business doing so). You can read all about it below.

[Good Links] Shrinking Heads
[Tech] R.I.P. Zune
{Travel] Keys to My Heart
[Books] Book Look: Quantum Reality

[Good Links] Shrinking Heads

Shrinking Heads: Loved this article on therapy from someone who had three therapists fall asleep on him. Needless to say, they all manufactured a plausible psychological excuse.

Speaking of psychology, this on procrastination from a Hollywood psychologist to entertainment industry big wigs:
By far the most common problem afflicting the writers in Michels's practice is procrastination, which he understands in terms of Jung's Father archetype. "They procrastinate because they have no external authority figure demanding that they write," he says. "Often I explain to the patient that there is an authority figure he's answerable to, but it's not human. It's Time itself that's passing inexorably. That's why they call it Father Time. Every time you procrastinate or waste time, you're defying this authority figure." Procrastination, he says, is a "spurious form of immortality," the ego's way of claiming that it has all the time in the world; writing, by extension, is a kind of death. He gives procrastinators a tool he calls the Arbitrary Use of Time Moment, which asks them to sit in front of their computers for a fixed amount of time each day. "You say, 'I'm surrendering myself to the archetypal Father, Chronos,' " he says. 'I'm surrendering to him because he has hegemony over me.' That submission activates something inside someone. In the simplest terms, it gets people to get their ass in the chair."
A writer might simply call that yielding to mortal fear.

[Tech] R.I.P. Zune

R.I.P. Zune: Very sad to see that Microsoft has given up on Zune. The service and music store will continue, but the player is dead. The knee-jerk analysis is that there was no way they could stand up to the iPod, which is perhaps true, but I think the bigger issue is that all dedicated music/media players are evolving into smartphones and tablets. With that in mind Microsoft is aiming to be an operating system provider, not a device maker. So they will be hammering on Windows Phone 7 and some tablet variation to battle Android and Apple in the ongoing struggle over pods and pads.

I have two Zunes -- a first gen 30 gig model that is my main music player and a second gen 8 gig that I keep loaded with workout music for runs and the gym. They excel at what I need them for, which is to play music -- not movies, not facebook, not Twitter, not re-orienting myself to the enlightened Tao of Apple. Basically, I want a super convenient Sony Walkman. But once again, it looks like the world is passing me by. And just when I think I've finally caught up to it.

I am also quite possibly the last person on Earth still using a Motorola RAZR for a phone. The lagging edge has served me well. And I'm in no hurry to change. I have a pay-as-you-go plan for voice and text and it literally costs me about $200 a year for what I need. And I feel confident that Microsoft will continue to support existing Zunes as legacy products (they are actually pretty god about that), so I may be OK for some time to come.

Still the inevitable change is, well, inevitable. At some point I will probably have a smartphone and a tablet. Probably about the time they are beginning to go obsolete.

[Travel] Keys to My Heart

Keys to My Heart: [[Photos to come.]] I do still love Florida. First, Palm Beach. I flew in on Friday, arriving in the early afternoon (a fine enough flight, no rant needed), snagged my rental, and headed for Worth Ave.

It's tempting to resort to clich‚d descriptions of gauche, wealthy WASPs; white-haired men sporting colorful khakis and reconstructed cougars dropping half a grand on a hairstyle. The clich‚s would be accurate. The street is peppered with Bentleys and Rolls and high-end Mercedes. Anything below a Lexus sticks out. Gucci and Neiman Marcus and Jimmy Choo and Cartier and Brooks Bros and Polo. The street-side real estate glossy magazine is filled with eight-digit homes with private boat docks and servant's quarters. Women are decked out in desperate housewife level finery, towing pugs and papillions. Men with fishing and golf logo'd sportswear and millionaire-banker jawlines are killing time over single barrel bourbons while their wives/mistresses are overspending. And tourists, of course. In fact anyone who didn't fit in the above category could be presumed to be a tourist.

Now many of you are cringing at the thought of such a gaudy display of wealth and status. Leaving aside the questionable merit and motives for such anti-snobbery, let me just say that from an aesthetic standpoint, you would have to acknowledge the place is remarkably beautiful. The architecture is old Floridian, with the quasi-moorish influences in the roofs and turrets. There is a nice clock tower at the end of the street where the ocean begins. The beach is a perfect Florida Atlantic Ocean beach. And the streets are absolutely spotless. Decadent or not, it's a good place to hang out.

I confined myself to taking some photos and having an al fresco dinner of Neapolitan pizza and white wine. Then back to my hotel room. Big day tomorrow.

The plan: Pick up Miss Kate and the airport, swing by Barry University to get Miss Anna and barrel-ass it to Key West. And that we did. A brief stop in Key Largo at the renowned Key Largo Conch House where they have an "As Seen on the Food Network" banner up and are happy to mention all their awards and the fact that an actress named Jorja Fox from CSI-Las Vegas once enjoyed their fish tacos. The food was tasty and the atmosphere was pure Key Largo -- ultra casual, open air amidst the palms, fishing-hole kitschy d‚cor, and somewhat lackadaisical service. Late in the day we pulled into the Reach Resort in Key West proper.

In recent years, Hilton has taken over two resorts on the southwest side of the island under the auspices of the Waldorf Group, which is to say their luxury recreational group (as opposed to Conrad, which is their luxury business group). The two resorts are Casa Marina and the Reach Resort. They are separated by about four residential blocks and services can be used seamlessly across resorts.

If I had to characterize them differently, I would say Casa Marina is larger and more traditionally resorty. Reach is smaller and going for a more hip, boutiquey feel. Both are exquisitely beautiful.

Reach was something of a mixed bag for us. It was 5:30 before our room was ready, which was really not that big a problem since we were able to familiarize ourselves with the bar and the pool side amenities. The room itself was more than a little, um, challenging. A handle to the closet came off at the touch and the mini-fridge could have woken the dead, but strangest was the layout. While there was a bit of a hallway between the bedroom and bathroom, the bathroom itself, including commode, was not separated from the bedroom by a door. That was truly creepy. I mean, it is sufficiently isolated, I'm sure, but I really need to close and lock the door when I am going potty. It may be psychological, but I just feel more civilized when the sounds and smells of my bodily functions are fully private.

But apart from that, Reach is a top notch place. I would have been happy to stay a few more days and spend some time on the private beach and maybe sample the steakhouse, called Strip which is accentuated with large pictures of naked women. Like I said, they are look for a hip, edgy vibe at Reach.

I should point out that, despite my snarkiness, the staff was unfailingly friendly and helpful. That is hugely important and trumps all the little peccadilloes.

Reach is one block east of the south end of Duval Street. And Duval Street is where the action is. Stretching the length of the island north to south, Duval is lined with innumerable crap shops, bars, and miscellaneous nonsense (including at least one "adult club"). Since this is my fourth visit to Key West, I'm sure I've written about Duval Street before. I suppose you could consider it similar the Bourbon Street in New Orleans, but somewhat less lurid, although no less profane. By their nature, Conch Republic types have more of a chilled-out hash-house streak than the bayou hustlers in the Big Easy.

We walked down Duval towards Mallory Square, stopping here and there, hoping to snag a waterside dinner table to catch the sunset. Of course the waterfront was packed on a Saturday night so we moved inland a block and had a fine open-air rooftop dinner at the appropriately named Rooftop Caf‚.

Up early the following morning for the big adventure to The Dry Tortugas. Little more than a collection of coral reefs and sandbars, the Dry Tortugas lay about 70 miles west of Key West. (They're called "dry" because there is no fresh water, not because you can't drink there...although you can't drink there.) You get there via the Yankee Freedom ferry as part of an arranged tour, and a very, very nicely done tour at that. If you've done boating/snorkeling day tours before, you know they can be very regimented and controlled. Not so with the Yankee Freedom. It's not cheap, but when you add up everything that's included it is really a great deal. The ferry ride, park entry fee, breakfast, lunch, snorkeling gear, and a tour of Fort Jefferson -- all included. Bring sunscreen and towels. You only have to pay for drinks and afternoon snacks, and I suppose you could pre-pack those too.

The key thing that differentiates this from other tours is that once you are at the destination, you are pretty much on your own timetable. They do guided tours of the Fort at two or three times and you can sign up for any, or just tour it by yourself -- there are placards for a self guided tour. The Fort is a very cool place; labyrinthine old brick work that virtually shouts of its violent and sordid history. It's a moat-outlined three-level hexagon with an expansive, green, cactus and mangrove filled courtyard and astounding 360 degree views from the top. Reserve an hour for touring and explorations. Then head to the beach for some outstanding snorkeling in the reef-protected waters. Huge schools of silvery fish try to stay clear of the diving pelicans, just yards from your mask. Honestly the best snorkeling experience of my life (although that's not saying much). Top it all off with a couple of drinks on the trip home and it makes for one awesome day. When visiting Key West you really must take the Yankee Freedom to the Dry Tortugas. I can't recommend this highly enough.

Thanks to the room availability SNAFU at check-in, we were able to snag a late check-out the following day so I took the opportunity for a 5-mile run in the morning before the heat was upon us. It was an interesting experience in the contrasts of the island. Jogging along the south shore it's pretty clear to see that is the "bad side of town," if there really is such a thing in Key West, but this is clearly where the homeless guys and vagrants hang out on the benches and sleep off whatever is ailing them. The beach here is long, but not particularly attractive and the winds whip up hard, as evidenced by the near constant figures of kiteboarders. The core of the island is residential and the houses -- generally very cozy and well cared for behind their old growth shade trees -- are fairly tightly packed. The north shore is where the docks are -- fishing charters, old schooners doing sunset sails, various ferries. As you move west you reach the heart of Duval Street and Mallory Square, then continuing southwest you encounter the coiffured realm of Truman Annex, home to Harry Turman's Southern White House. Along the far western shore is a naval station and the docking area for the big cruise ships. Keep heading back south and you eventually reach Ft. Zachary State Park, the site of the only good beach in Key West and some truly funky beach architecture. Turning back east toward the heart of town takes you through the smallish old town with Cuban and Haitian shops and divey diners. Key West is a remarkably varied place for such a small island.

I love Key West. Certainly one of my most favorite places in Florida (but that tends to change with each new trip). I've been four times and I still have much to explore. I was sad to leave.

The last couple of nights we settled in the Coral Gables. In the weirdness that is Miami you often find nice upscale neighborhoods next to downtrodden quasi-ghettos. Just a stone's throw from Little Havana (which is not the worst place in Miami, but not remotely upscale), Coral Gables could be lifted from any high-end urban metropolis. A fine set of restaurants and shops, good area for walking about. If you need to stay in the city, as opposed to at the beaches, you probably should shoot for Coral Gables.

Just a quick swing towards downtown then across a bridge and you find yourself on Key Biscayne -- a lovely island with a predominantly country club feel about it. The exception to this is the Bill Baggs State Park which features a terrific beach, nature trails, etc. Sadly, we only had about an hour there, but it was enough time to slap on the bathing suit and go out and bob around in the warm Atlantic Ocean while some sort of photo shoot (featuring children) was proceeding on the beach. Not surprising since the beach here often shows up on the various "most beautiful" lists. I first set foot in the Florida Atlantic nearly 40 years ago and it still feels like home.

Our final evening was Anna's birthday dinner, an adventure that included my getting lost in the car, my getting lost on foot, and finally driving a trio of college coeds to the world's sketchiest liquor store on the edge of Little Haiti to buy a bottle of Grey Goose through an armored window. It was not my finest hour.

I couldn't count the number of times I've visited Florida, but I still love it. Facing the fact that I will likely end up here one day when I take my place in God's waiting room just isn't all that depressing to me. I think I could adapt to being a Worth Street trolling, white haired millionaire, clad in Tommy Bahama. Hell, I wouldn't mind being known as that cranky old man on Duval Street.

[Books] Book Look: Quantum Reality, by Nick Herbert

Book Look: Quantum Reality, by Nick Herbert: I guess you can consider this part 2 of my continuing forays into the wackness that is reality. The last month was an exploration of the nature of time, reaching back to the beginning of the universe. This time it's all about the meaning of Quantum Theory.

Quantum Theory is the most audacious and intellectually challenging concept ever devised. It addresses a known situation wherein a particle doesn't exist in until it is observed or measured. Now, let's be clear on that. It's not that we don't know it's if it's there or not until we look at it, it is that is literally doesn't exist. OK, that's not exactly true, but in the common sense of existing, it doesn't. It exists in a bizarre state called a probability wave in which it is in all possible places we could see it at once. Only when we look does it settle into a particle in one spot.

Bizarre and surreal. Yet it is true. It is going on around us all the time, these particles popping into reality. The best discussion I know of on this idea is a lecture from Richard Feynman (made available courtesy Microsoft, you may need to view it in IE). It's worth watching if you're curious about this.

So you see what I mean about wackness. This makes the theory of relativity seem positively tame.

Early in the twentieth century a number of scientists (Werner Heisenberg is the big name here, but he was one of many who had a hand) came up with Quantum Theory to deal with this. It is an enormously complicated set of laws based on something called waveform physics, which generates exact answers to all experimentation done in the quantum realm. In other words, we know exactly what rules govern this stuff -- verified by experiments over and over again in the ensuing years. We can make very accurate predictions about what will happen when and where, but we don't really know what it means as far as the nature of reality. I mean, really, what is this nonsense about being in all possible places at once?

This is what Nick Herbert tries to sort out. In the end he can't, of course, because it's not something that is known. (In fact, some make the argument that it can't be known.) So he has to settle for reviewing the possibilities. Unfortunately, many of possibilities devolve into very unsatisfying conclusions. Herbert does a thorough job, but let me shortcut to a few interesting ones.

Observer Created Reality -- this is the new age notion that, in a very real sense, reality as we know it is created when we observe it. Now, that leaves wide open the question of what counts as observation. Einstein belittled this by saying (paraphrased) that he could not imagine a mouse having some creative control over the universe. At least one physicist has proposed quite scientifically that reality only occurs when it comes into purview of intelligent consciousness. This leads to the view of the universe as a lattice of interconnected observations, outside of which there are only probability waves. If a tree falls in the forest and nobody sees it, did it really fall? The answer is, apparently, there is no tree only the probability of one.

Many Worlds -- this was conceived in the early sixties. It stems from the whole notion that unobserved particles exist in all possible states prior to observation. One thing that quantum physicists are really keen on is finding a way that there is nothing special about our existence. If ours is one existence that occurred out of an uncountable number of possible turns the universe could have taken over its life, that leaves these guys having to figure out why this one instead of the others. So if these bizzare quantum things exists in all possible places prior to being observed, why did they just happen to end up the way they did? (As a gambler, this problem doesn't bother me. Bad beats happen. Trust me on this.) The many worlds theory gets around this by saying they all happen, you just can't see the others because they exist in a parallel universe. Then science fiction writers figure out ways around that and we get Sliders and Spock with a beard.

Action at a Distance -- not really a conception of Quantum Reality but a fact that must be accounted for, and frankly, it gets my gold star for the single weirdest thing in the universe. Also called quantum entanglement, this tells us that unconnected things can have "knowledge" of each other. It is possible to get two particles in a state such that they mirror each other. Imagine two particles one charged negative and one charged positive (it's not really a charge, but think of it that way for the sake of argument). If you put these particles in an "entangled" state, when one particle changes charge the other also does at the same instant. The key thing is that there is no need for one particle to indicate the change to the other; it's as if they are physically connected. The kicker is it doesn't matter how far apart they are. They could be the full instance of the known universe apart and they would still change instantaneously. This, as Herbert points out, is essentially voodoo. Stick a pin in a doll in Haiti and some poor schlub in Peoria screams in pain. Except with entangled particles it actually happens. It looks like in some sense, everything in the universe is connected as if it were a single object. I hate that. It makes me feel like I'm in some kind of hippie-mystic acid trip.

Einstein never warmed to Quantum Theory. Of the unobserved universe being created of probability waves, he famously said (paraphrase), "God does not play dice with the universe." He was less adamant in time but always felt that it the notion of the quasi-existential, probabilistic state required of a particle prior to observation was untenable. Even as more and more experimental validation came he never gave in. In the end the best he could argue was that the universe is really made up a normal stuff and the Quantum Theory is incomplete. That there is something else to it that we have yet to discover that makes the numbers work out for the normal stuff of the universe without resorting to the wackness. Interestingly, a group of people called the neo-classists have tried to do just that, but to account for Action at a Distance they have had to resort to something going faster than the speed of light, which Einstein proved impossible.

As you can tell, the bottom line here is that nobody has a friggin' clue about the essential nature of the world we live in. We can predict what will happen in specific circumstances quite well. Perhaps even better that when Issac Newton sorted the world out back in the day. Because of this we can make use of the nature of things without actually knowing the story behind them. But on the objective nature of Reality, our ignorance is monumental.

Herbert does a clear, precise cataloging of the theories, their proponents, and their shortcomings. He does not talk down nor does he gloss over issues. He chooses an unconventional demonstration of observer created reality using polarization of light through a crystal which is more than a bit confusing. I highly recommend the Feynman lecture linked above for that demonstration. He also goes into some detail about the sorts of experiments that are done to validate Quantum Theory, but I could not follow them.

Should you read Quanum Reality? If you have a passing familiarity with this topic and while you've read or seen a bit about it, you still don't know what it all means, then yes. Herbert is at his best when trying to dig into what all this means rather than the experimental justification. At that he excels. If you have little or no knowledge of quantum theory, I don't recommend this as a starting point. More popular recent works by someone like Brian Greene or Paul Davies would be a better place to start. But do try to get here eventually; it's an eye-opener to our ignorance. And in the end, while Herbert has his favorite ideas, like every other physicist, one suspects that he realizes that at the moment, the metaphysical theories just reflect the pre-existing human bias of the scientists involved. The truth is, we just don't know, and we may not for may many years to come. My guess is that when we are resorting to the stuff of fantasy and sci-fi, we are probably as far from having any answers as we have ever been.