Tuesday, August 07, 2012

The Month That Was - July 2012

The Month That Was - July 2012: Hot. It's hot. I don't want to do anything, it's too hot. It's too expensive to be inside the house running the AC nonstop. Working outside is out of the question, and the grass is dead. I've been hanging out at work to leech company AC and at the gym, stretching my workouts into the evening. Damn it's hot. Too bloody hot.

Seriously, I'm just spending my days being a good boy: living quietly, minding my manners, eating my vegetables, saving money, tending my garden, reading, writing, and working hard. Hoping for karma in the bank and a break in the heat.

[Books] Book Look: Death of a Red Heroine and A Loyal Character Dancer
[Health and Fitness] Fitness Follies
[Michigan] Glove Love
[Sports] Flat Tour

[Books] Book Look: Death of a Red Heroine and A Loyal Character Dancer, by Qiu Xiaolong

Book Look: Death of Red Heroine and A Loyal Character Dancer, by Qiu Xiaolong: The first two entries in a mystery series set in Shanghai, these are wonderfully evocative of China. Often, in reading reviews of mysteries, points are made about how the ancillary features -- a fantasy or historical setting -- are the real source of interest, beyond the mystery itself. Fair enough, but in most cases this feels very manufactured; as if the author sat down and said, "OK, I need a gimmick to differentiate my stories." In this series the atmosphere of Shanghai is deeply woven into the stories.

Chief Inspector Chen Cao is our hero. Chen is a well-regarded poet and a makes extra money by translating English mysteries. His main occupation, however, is leading a special investigative division of the Shanghai police force -- special in the sense that they are assigned highly important cases, usually because of politics. The politics here are the politics of Shanghai in the '90s. The institutional forces at play are confounding. There are the dwindling "old cadre" -- Communist party hangovers from the time of Mao, before Deng's modernization. They tend to take a hard line and often view Chen's literary sideline as gravely suspicious. They are however, fading fast. The current Party high cadre came to power under Deng and they are masters of the gray world where fidelity to communism and getting obscenely wealthy are compatible via semantics and sophistry. Hovering in the shadows is the Triad (organized crime) in various guises. High concepts aside, power is as power does. Chen, for his part, is not without political power, mostly due to an estranged lover with connections to the Party council.

Individuals themselves are equally complicated. Many are struggling with the loss of the certainty of communism. Their once safe jobs are gone or they find their pay so minimal in booming Shanghai that they can barely get by. This hits home especially hard with Detective Yu, Chen's right hand man. He, along with his wife and son, still lives in cramped house with his father. He has little prospects for anything better in his career, and his wife, who works as a bookkeeper for a local restaurant actually makes more money that he does. Even when on an investigation he takes the bus to get to crime scenes and to interview witnesses. He has to find a payphone to call in reports to Chen. Meanwhile, many of those with the right contacts have made forays into the business and become quite wealthy but despite lip service to free enterprise, they run the risk of powerful opinion turning on them at any moment.

Hovering in the background of nearly every character is the Cultural Revolution and the atrocities and hardships that were thrust upon them by Mao, leaving them with scars that drive them in ways they often don't understand themselves.

In the midst of all this, Chief Inspector Chen has to solve murders and at least attempt to bring justice into this world where various influential people with tangled webs of goals and agendas would like to see things otherwise resolved.

Should you read the Chief Inspector Chen series? Two books in, I would say yes, unless you are actively repelled by police procedurals. As I said, the mysteries themselves are passable, the side characters and circumstances can be superficially drawn (as in most mysteries) but the world of Chief Inspector Chen is the pearl in this oyster. I'll follow up with a full report once I've completed the series. Which I intend to do.

[Health and Fitness] Fitness Follies

Fitness Follies: The heat really put a damper on things. Usually during the hot months I switch from running to cycling because it's much cooler, mostly because you are going fast enough to have a constant breeze in your face, but once you get into the triple digits, it's like a breeze from a blast furnace. Still, the cycling is going well. I was able to do the 40 mile Helluva Ride again this year -- always fun-- and I hope to get a 50+ miler in somewhere (or a half-century, if I want it to sound more impressive) before it gets too cold.

Swimming has slipped. It's just been difficult to get out to the lake with any regularity and with the heat, the crowds really put a damper on the swimming of buoy laps. It's no fun to accidentally deliver a forearm to some chubby dude wedged into a inner tube shaped like a duck, no matter how hard you try to smile.

I've also been keeping up with running to a certain extent. But more importantly in that department I was recommended to a place called The Running Institute, a physical therapy operation that focuses on runners. Since I was experiencing some brutal knee pain, I decided to let them put me through my paces.

All my life I have been told I am a supinator; I run on the outsides of my feet. I can stand on the little measuring device in the running store and it will show the weight distributed to the outside of my feet. Because of this I have always worn what are called "cushioned neutral" shoes. The idea behind these shoes is the added cushioning allows your foot to gently roll off the outside into proper neutral position -- it sort of passively guides your foot to roll inward to counterbalance your supination.

Now, at the Running Institute they don't play around with Mickey Mouse measuring devices or make guesses based on subjective impressions: they go right to the tape -- they video you and they look and the results with you. My videos caused people to go bug-eyed. Despite the fact that I load-bear on the outsides of my feet standing and walking, when I kick into a run, suddenly everything changes and I'm rolling to the inside of my foot (pronation). Honestly, looking at this video I was amazed my heel hadn't snapped in two at some point.

The upshot is that every shoe guy who has ever looked at me has recommended a shoe type that is the exact opposite of the one I needed; the one that encouraged my problem. But that was not obvious without the video.

From there the rest was easy. Go to the shoe shop next door (Running Fit). Pick out 5 pairs of shoes of the right type. Video me running on the treadmill in each pair. Pick the one that best straightens me out. For the record: Brooks Adrenaline GTS12.

I've only just started running in them but so far so good. We'll see if my knee pain subsides. For the revelation about my stride alone and comprehensive analysis, I would recommend The Running Institute, but most impressively you get a quick eval from a really high end running coach, Ron Warhurst, who's trained numerous internationally successful runners including the Beijing silver medalist in the 1500 and flag-bearer for New Zealand in London. He'll nail your worst inefficiencies in about 10 seconds.

A two session eval is not cheap, $175, but if you are at all serious about running, even recreational running, I highly recommend it. (Obviously this is for my Ann Arbor area homeys, but hey, if you want to make the trip...)

[Michigan] Glove Love

Glove Love: I'll be heading up to Mackinac next month, but others are commenting on Michigan summer travel already. Mario Batali, everybody's favorite fat Italian chef -- I could not count number of astounding meals I've had in his restaurants from Vegas to Manhattan -- declared Traverse City, Michigan to be his favorite summer destination for foodies. Familiarity might have something to do with that since he keeps a summer home up on the bay. (The original draft of this story referenced Batali's "ocean house." A poor commentary on the state of geographic education.)

Pure Michigan, the the State's travel PR organization, sponsored a north glove trip for Jaunted.com, one of the travel sites I follow. It's actually a sister site to Hotel Chatter, where I used to contribute in their early pre-corporate years. They got to:
  1. Go to Mackinac Island
  2. Stay at the Grand Hotel
  3. Bike around the Island
  4. Visit a U.P. winery
  5. Go out on the water
  6. Smuggle pie past TSA
On behalf of all of us 'ganders, You're Welcome.

[Sports] Flat Tour

Flat Tour: I continue my tradition of being the only North American who follows the Tour de France, and this year it was rather a dull one. The winner was Bradley Wiggins and he had the race pretty much sewn up in the first few days. It was his unless he snapped a femur and couldn't continue. He was head and shoulders above anyone else on the time trials and he clearly had the best team around him, including the guy who finished second, so it really was no contest. Normally if the top two guys are on the same team, there is a controversy over who should be number one, but that never got off the ground because the number two guy immediately said "I'm the number 2 guy; I'm here to support the number 1 guy, and that's that," or words the that effect.

Last year's winner, Cadel Evans, was clearly not in condition to compete, to the point that another rider on his team taking over the top dog spot from him. A couple of other possible contenders were sidelined with injuries. Blah.

Oh, there were bits and pieces of excitement. There were massive crashes for about five days in a row. Some of these crashes are action-movie vicious. Imagine being hurled out a car moving at about 30 miles per hour protected by nothing but a helmet and a layer of spandex. More amazingly, during one stage, in a monumental act of asshattery, someone covered a stretch of the road with tacks and nails. But this only served to highlight something I love about the Tour -- the sportsmanship. The leader, Wiggins, managed to avoid any tack-induced flats, but the guy who was at that point still considered a main rival, Evans, suffered two blowouts (as did many others). Wiggins, upon hearing of this, intentionally slowed down (and the rest of the field slowed with him) until Evans changed tires and regained his ground. The overriding principle being that you should not lose the Tour because of mechanical problems. You should lose because the other guy raced better. This is really quite unique in sports, to my understanding. I guarantee you no NASCAR driver has ever slowed down because his rival had mechanical problems. In no running race has anyone ever held up because a rival's shoelace snapped. It's just the purest example of old school sportsmanship. It's the sort of behavior that is long gone from the wider world.

Of course, you can counter that with all the doping that goes on cycling may also be the dirtiest sport in the world. But viewed narrowly, it's pretty cool.