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.