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.