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, 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.

  • 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.

  • 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 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.