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?

[Detroit] Spitting on the Hand that Feeds It

Spitting on the Hand that Feeds It: This story tells you everything you need to know about Detroit. The city is getting a massive amount of philanthropic assistance from the Kresge Foundation:
Kresge has invested more than $100 million in Detroit's transformation, funding a riverfront promenade, building greenways and backing incentives for entrepreneurs.
In return, they get contempt. The Mayor can't accept somebody else getting some credit:
"Everyone talks about Kresge, Kresge, Kresge," the mayor said in an interview. "We're pleased with the support we're getting from them, but... Kresge is not doing this in a vacuum by themselves."
A city executive is indignant that these outsiders won't just give them the money without strings attached:
"People want to know that their interests are being represented," says Marja Winters, the city's deputy planning chief and co-leader of Detroit Works. "Someone who doesn't live here can't accurately represent their interests."
Presumably she'd rather just let people suffer before she sacrificed control, I mean, they've done right by the people so far, haven't they?

I once encountered a bum in front of a diner who told me he was hungry and hadn't eaten in days. I offered to buy him a burger inside. He said, "F**k you. Just give me the five dollars." I didn't. My advice to Kresge is to find something of real value to do with their money because Detroit is pathologically self-destructive and despite everything that has happened -- all the devestation and degradation and death of the past 50 years -- they are still not ready to change.