Monday, July 09, 2012

The Month That Was - June 2012

The Month That Was - June 2012: I'm even later than usual this month. My excuse is that everything seemed to happen at the end of the month. I finished the book I was going to review, spent a weekend in NYC -- even the links I found are mostly from the end of the month. Let's hope I can break the cycle.

I'm still not writing enough on my special project (real soon now), with which I am hoping to test the Amazon Singles waters. The bulk of the work is done, I just need to proof it one last time, write an intro, and format it properly. I had really hoped to be done by now, but I had gardening to do.

For the record, it has been pushing 100 degrees every day for the last week and it looks like we are in for a blistering July. I'm finding dried frog husks in my driveway. We've been getting searing sunlight punctuated by short half-hour thunderstorms with tornado like winds, then we switch right back to tanning bed conditions. The storms take out the power lines so when it heats back up, people can't run their A/C. It's been a truly bizarre summer weather-wise. So extreme that it's been difficult to enjoy. Part of that is also due to the physical problems I've been having, but that will have to wait until next month.

[Good Links] Link Onslaught
[House and Home] A Supposedly Fun Thing
[Travel] New York Weekend
[Tech] My Next Things
[Books] Book Look: The Great Game

[Good Links] Link Onslaught

Link Onslaught: Your monthly set of curious links...

[House and Home] A Supposedly Fun Thing

A Supposedly Fun Thing: I never really pictured myself as the kind of guy to buy coyote urine. But that's the sort of person I am now. Fox urine, too. The coyote urine is for repelling deer, the fox urine is for repelling rabbits and chipmunks and such. (Although I am not clear on why coyote urine wouldn't work for all sorts of critters short of say, a buffalo. Come to think of it, wouldn't bear urine be best -- sort of the king of all urines?)

It is somewhat disturbing to note the ready availability of these substances, and it speaks volumes on the ability of the free market to satisfy society's needs.

It is incredibly disturbing to think that some internet pervert searching on "urine" might land on this post.

Such is the nature of homeownership. Owning a house may not make economic sense at present. It's more of a right of passage -- a common cultural touchstone. People who took to home ownership early in life often to despise its demands. It sucks money out of your wallet at an alarming rate and burns time even faster. And for what? The hope (now more tenuous than in the past) that you will get some back when it comes time to sell. It compels you to wonder what you are passing up for the honor of suburban life.

But here's the thing: No matter what you do, you will wonder what you are giving up. And if you don't you must lack imagination. At age 50, to see what I had given up meant to learn what the great masses of homeowners learn earlier in life, when they were seeing me spend all my free time and money travelling around, writing novels, staying fit and cursing because they had to spend all their money on a new roof. For me this has meant learning basic stuff like swapping out light fixtures, sharpening mower blades, taping, priming and painting, dealing with bug infestations, re-hanging doors, etc. Most importantly, I've learned to get a grip on when it makes sense to call for help and when it makes sense to take a shot at things yourself.

If it's something that is going to require expensive specialty tools or is a potential disaster if you screw it up or if it's just something you'll never do again, it's probably a good idea to farm it out. An example of this for me was installing a new sump pump. It was not expensive and I'm sure with a little research and trial and error I could have done it myself. But if I screwed it up I could have had a basement full of sludge. Plus, sump pumps last decades so once I got it in, the likelihood I would ever re-use the skills learned would be pretty small.

Alternatively, if it's something you are going to have to do regularly and the tools required are not too expensive, you should make it a DIY if you can. You'll screw it up the first couple of times (again, hopefully that won't be too expensive), but after that you're good to go. Mowing my lawn falls into that category.

Not that lawn mowing is particularly complicated. I used to mow lawns for money when I was a kid, but those were flat, little 1/4 acre plots. I have a solid two acres with chaotic slopes and contours. The first couple of times I did mowed it took me over two hours and patterns in the lawn looked like something Van Gogh painted. Now I have it down to under ninety minutes and I get the lines pretty straight. (Although it doesn't help that one of the local lawn cutting pros told me that his crew would consider it a failure if it took more than a half-hour.) I also learned how dull mower blades can cause healthy grass to look brown and dead and how hornets are not particularly fond of lawnmowers as a class of product.

It's all about failing and learning. That's huge for me personally, since it is something I have struggled with all my life: to not be afraid to fail. As I look back I see so many things that I could have done in my life had I not been afraid of failure. Actually, it was not so much failure as fear of other people looking down on me or belittling me or thinking less of me over my failure. And that is truly pathetic. My actual fear was not what I thought about myself but what other people would think of me. And the thing is, although I came to terms with the need to fail some time ago, I didn't until recently see the cause behind my own fear until the last couple of years as the house has made me try and fail with great regularity. The follow up would be to deep dive into why the hell I ever cared what anyone else thought in the first place, but that sounds exhausting to me and I'd probably end up blaming my childhood or something lame like that.

So as you can see, homeownership continues to be a philosophical and psychological adventure for me, which is just what one should have in one's life after living half a century.

Still, I could do without the urine.

[Travel] New York Weekend

New York Weekend: I had a brief respite from my incredibly sad dearth of travel this year with a long weekend in New York. The crew consisted of Miss Kate and Miss Anna, and Anna's friend Brianna. (What could be more exciting for a pair of 20-year-old girls than to be in Manhattan?). As usual, it was whirlwind.

Hovering over the whole weekend was the heat. We managed to choose one of the hottest weekends in history for this -- approaching, if not exceeding, triple digit temps. The radiation from the sun, the concrete buildings, and the asphalt streets made the city feel like a convection oven. In hell.

And yet, we were able to be outside quite happily for some stretches. This is no doubt on account of being in Manhattan which is always a thrill. We hopped a cab to Soho to check out an art gallery that someone we know was thinking of getting involved with, and followed that up with a walk on The Highline.
Not really momentous, but very cool nonetheless, The Highline is an elevated walkway built at least partially over the tracks of an old rail line. Cultivated with plants and flowers and providing a more detached view of the city than street level, it is a strangely serene way to walk through the Greenwich Village and Chelsea.

The next stop was Eataly, the tackily named Italian food palace. Eataly is a brainchild of celeb chef Mario Batali and consists of multiple Italian eateries along with extensive offerings in produce, wine, beer, kitchen supplies -- anything to do with food, dolled up Italian style. It's really quite a cool place. Perfect if you want to counter hop for vino, antipasto, pizza, pasta, pesce -- sort of a make your own tasting. There are also full service restaurants. Although very Italian, the food was much over to the lighter side, e.g. the delicious appetizer of a simple grilled artichoke and a creme sauce dip. Great fun place to eat. Highly recommended but my guess is that it is busy all the time. We were there at 3 on a friday afternoon and still had to wait for a table.

Pretty sweet. Those were the two new things I wanted to do in Manhattan this time around - The Highline and Eataly, and that was just the first day. Now it was back to the familiar. That evening featured a walk over to Columbus Circle for ludicrously expensive cocktails and the exceedingly posh Mandarin Oriental, while the young 'uns went off to be beaten down by Manhattan nightlife in the inevitable way 20-year-olds will be in a world where you need to be 21 to have any fun.

The next morning started with a walk in Central Park, before it got too hot to breathe. At the boathouse pond the turtles were out in force, including one particular snapping turtle of Loch Nessian proportion. This shell on this thing had to be approaching two feet in diameter and it had a tail like something out of the Jurassic. A mother duck brought her chicks over to snag some bread crumbs and the brute forced her to push her chicks out on to land for safety. A truly vicious looking creature. Dabbling one's toes is contraindicated.

We followed this up with a new restaurant discovery: Brasserie Pushkin. An exquisite looking place, vastly more sophisticated than the four sweaty tourists in shorts that stopped in for brunch (that would be us). The scrambled eggs with salmon, spinach, and caviar in a glass was one of the most flavorful things I have ever tasted. This place goes on the list for a future dinner adventure. But don;t miss brunch.

The last major event was, naturally, a Broadway show. The girls wanted to see Book of Mormon but that is sold out through kingdom come. We managed to snag four pretty good seats for Nice Work..if you can get it, which is about the perfect Broadway show to see if you only get to see a single show every year or so. A farcical comedy set in the twenties, tightly written but highly dependent for comedy on the delivery of the material and the actors, including big name Matthew Broderick, come through. The music is all Gershwin -- songs you know by heart. Theatre purists and aficionados could find a lot of fault I'm sure, but the Broadway producers know what people want. They want a fun show, lots of laughs, toe tapping tunes, something to chatter happily about afterwards at dinner, and a fun story to tell the folks back home. Nice Work... delivers on all counts.

And that was pretty much that. Like all my New York trips, it was a minor epic, over too quickly. We all scattered to various ends of the country (some of us got a ride to the airport in the hotel's Escalade -- thanks Doubletree). I felt lucky. It had been too long since I was in Manhattan, and sadly, it will probably be too long until I'm there again.

[Tech] My Next Things

My Next Things: I need a new laptop. My trusty HP pavillion is on it's last legs. The fan is making tubercular heaves every now and then. It is woefully underpowered (it must be at least 6 years old). My original thought was to wait for Windows 8 so I don't have to mess with an upgrade but to their credit, Microsoft has stated upgrades from Windows 7 to Windows 8 will be about $40, which is pretty sweet. If I buy a new laptop, it will be from Microsoft Signature, a little-known business unit of Microsoft wherein you can purchase computers and have Microsoft "optimize" them for Windows. This "optimizing" generally amounts to removing all the crap freebies and/or doing a clean install of Windows with appropriate settings that the manufacturer is either ignorant of or unwilling to set on their own.

But yes, IF I buy a new laptop. That is no means a foregone conclusion. A tablet of some sort is in the running. The only problem with a tablet is that I need a keyboard. I have gotten so I don't really need internal storage on the go, I can keep all my docs in the cloud, but I do need a keyboard since I write things much longer than an email. [[Update: Microsoft Surface to the rescue?]] I couldn't do without internal storage altogether, but I could couple a tablet with an inexpensive desktop in my office to store my photos and music. Alternatively, I could move all my photos and music to the cloud, but I have an awful lot. I'm not sure how much that storage would cost, and frankly, it sounds like an exhausting project.

More worrying is my phone situation. I have a Windows 7 phone. Windows 8 comes this fall and it is not compatible, so unless I want to live with Windows Phone 7 for the foreseeable future, I'm looking at a phone upgrade. And if I'm going to do a phone upgrade, I may get myself off Windows phone altogether. It hasn't been a bad experience and I wouldn't hesitate to recommend it, but there is stuff I don't like (like not being able to upgrade) and a lack of some key applications (e.g. Instagram, which I could totally dominate).

The fact is, despite the best efforts of Microsoft and Google, iStuff is getting increasingly hard to keep at arm's length. Suppose I bit the bullet and purchased an iPhone, an iPad, and an iPod nano. I would have to suffer with iTunes to manage my content, but apart from that, I would never have to do without an app or find myself incompatible with some peripheral or network. I could even mix up the colors to keep it interesting.

Honestly, when my phone contract is up, that's the odds on favorite. Android is running a close second -- that would be a Kindle Fire tablet, a top of the line Samsung phone, and I don't know what for workout music. Then of course, both Google and Microsoft are coming out with tablets, and Amazon is going to create its own phone...Why does everything have to be so complicated?

I think I'll just get a typewriter and be done with it.

[Books] Book Look: The Great Game, by Peter Hopkirk

Book Look: The Great Game, by Peter Hopkirk: I picked this up because I was so impressed with last month's Trespassers on the Roof of the World. The style is similar (a good thing), highlighting individual stories of daring and adventure with a fair amount of bloodletting, all in the context geopolitical history.

"The Great Game" is a term popularized by Rudyard Kipling to describe the maneuverings of the British and Russian Empires for control of central Asia -- call it the area of modern day Iran, Afghanistan and portion of the other 'Stans (Turkmen-, Uzbek-, Kyrgyz- and Tajik-) -- from the mid-19th century through the early 20th.

The British motivations were actually quite simple. They feared for the safety of India from invaders. This fear waxed and waned with political fashion. When it waxed, they adopted a "forward" policy of directly influencing the tribal governments often through military intervention, or threats thereof. When it waned, they used bribes, promises of protection, and other forms of coercion to try to keep a wide cushion of influence between them and the Russians to the northwest.

The Russians were, even then, and enigma wrapped in a mystery. Their motivations remain speculative, but like the Brits, their efforts at expanding their empire moved in sync with internal politics. Often the Russian motivation was simple geographic (and therefore economic) expansion, or the same with the purpose of eventually giving them a southern coastal outlet. Sometimes the stated purpose was protect the indigenous population from the barbarities of British rule. Sometimes it was the Tsar's duty as protector of Christianity to do some aggressive protectin' in light of the fact that Russians on the fringes of their empire were often kidnapped and sold into slavery by plundering Muslims.

Where you point fingers of good and evil in this is almost certainly going to be a function of your existing prejudices rather than an objective reasoning, despite what you may think about yourself. For me, it was telling that lands and people that came under British influence were often quite better off, provided they could stomach the loss of self-determination. Native operatives and military personnel were often fiercely loyal to their British superiors, engaging in remarkable acts of heroism and self-sacrifice. The Russians, on the other hand, were arrogant pricks at best, and had no hope of ruling other than with the threat of violence.

But that's my reading. Hopkirk does a good job of staying as neutral as possible. He has researched Soviet historians on the topic and well as all the archives the British have on hand, although one must realize that much of this was shadowy intrigue -- not the sort of stuff you put on record.

The Great Game can almost be read as an adventure novel. Much of it takes place in some of the most remote points on the globe, and showcases people undertaking astounding hardships to reach destinations where they have no idea if they will be met with hospitality or beheading. If they survive they then find that situations have changed so much that the mission orders they received are irrelevant or have been overtaken by events. The men profiled in this book have to have been some of the most resourceful people who ever lived.

Hopkirk follows the key players through the years, identifies the political and strategic aspects of the Game and even passes along some personal insights gained from his travels in the area.

Should you read The Great Game? Yes...but, it is a long book -- nearly six hundred pages. Trespassers on the Roof of the World, the precursor to this book focussing on the Tibetan portion of the Great Game, is a good deal shorter. You may want to start there to make sure it is to your taste. If it is, do not hesitate to follow it up with The Great Game. It's a classic for a reason.