Monday, September 03, 2012

The Month That Was - August 2012

The Month That Was - August 2012: A handful of fallen leaves, a after-work bike ride in twilight -- we are officially into the tail end of summer. I'll get maybe two more lake swims in, three if I'm lucky. The upside is that I only have two or three more lawn cutting expeditions, too.

Just as with last summer the house dominated my concerns. I'm dropping some serious change to re-asphalt the driveway. I've also been pouring money into flowers and plants weekly. I got part of my kitchen repainted and a counter extension put on to the kitchen peninsula. Got a number of wall hangings up including some seriously sweet canvas rendering of a set of 4 of my photos from Antelope Canyon.

Still much more to do. And I have big plans for an addition and a patio/deck enhancement out back, but the next big project is going to be getting the old condo in shape to sell; that's going to finance the big plans. I'm seriously tempted to list it For Sale by Owner, partially just out of curiosity as to whether I could do it successfully and save a few thousand in commissions. But it wouldn't be the first time my big ambitious plans went south on me and I ended up cursing myself.

At some point I will write again. I'm sure of it.

[Travel] Back to the O.C.
[Books] Book Look: The Thief
[Rant] The Trouble With Lance
[Detroit] Dissin' The D
[Good Links] Trip the Link Fantastic

[Travel] Back to the O.C.

Back to The O.C.: Now that Miss Anna is out in Southern Cal it seems I will be traveling there habitually for a while at least. Slowly, I'm learning my way around. Traffic is as bad as it is thought to be, but in some circumstances you can get around it if you are willing to pony up some scratch. There is a stretch of toll road that will get you from OC airport to points south, with very little traffic even on a weekday rush hour -- but you're going to be dropping round about $6 per trip to use it. It'll reduce a hour long stop and go to about 25 minutes, so it's probably worth it. What's not worth it are the carpool lanes. Although we had access due to multiple riders, I never noticed them moving any faster than the other lanes. And you are limited to certain points where you can get in them and out of them.

So here we see the first effect of spending time in So Cal. Traffic becomes a significant concern at all times. There are few things more relative than traffic attitudes. Here in Dexter they were repaving a bridge that caused it to be taken down to one lane, for a couple of months. We had the option of driving 5 minutes out of our way or waiting 5 minutes to take turns crossing. This was an outrageous disruption. In So Cal waiting 5 minutes in line to pay and extra six dollars to take a toll road is considered a privilege.

Besides the fact that So Cal remains a beautiful place, there's not much to report on. The primary goal of this trip was to get Anna settled into a new apartment (a very cool place). Lots of moving and cleaning. I installed a ceiling fan for the first time in my life - OK, it wasn't on my bucket list, but still a minor achievement. Also, I managed to destroy only one picture frame in the course of getting wall hangings up, which I consider a personal victory.

We bedded down at the lovely Dana Point at the Laguna Cliffs Marriott. A lovely place elevated above the shore where we have stayed before. It's a quality hotel through and through, but not without its quirks. They tend to get themselves overcrowded, especially on the weekends. There is only valet parking, meaning you pretty much have to tack an extra $20-25/night on the expected cost. Those two bummers combine such that Sunday morning, the big checkout time, we called down to have our car brought around and they said they were not taking calls for cars, we had to show up in person because they were so busy they had no room to leave cars sitting in the driveway waiting. So we showed up in person and were quoted a half hour wait. Whatever system they have going on here needs attention.

The other issue is one that afflicts many many restaurants and lounges: the inexplicable need to plant a ridiculously loud band in the middle of the room such that conversation consists of shouting at each other. It's really remarkable that a place like the Laguna Cliffs Marriott, with a beautiful open air restaurant that would be an amazing place to just curl up and cocktail the night away with friends, feels the need to try to make itself into a third rate nightclub. As I said, this is not a rare occurrence which is all the more annoying because it is possible to have live music without turning the place into a half-assed roadhouse. One night we ate and a surprisingly good Italian restaurant called Roma D'Italia in a shopping center near Anna's place and they had a live jazz duo that was quite good and entertaining yet somehow managed to play at a volume that permitted conversation using inside voices.

In any event, we did have one free day that Miss Kate and I used to go down to San Diego to do a bit of biking. We got down to Pacific Beach and rented a couple of bikes with the intent of riding to Mission Bay Park, but apparently you couldn't get there from where we were. We headed off in the right direction but next thing I knew we were trying to negotiate what seemed to be a freeway cloverleaf with cars whipping past us at 60 mph. It's not like there were signs, and sadly the map app on my phone did not indicate where the bike paths were. We headed in what looked like the safest direction and eventually came to nice stretch of path that took us to a beach, but it was a dog beach, and smelled like one. After backtracking a bit and maneuvering through another insane intersection we finally made it to Mission Bay Park but with only a few minutes to ride around before we had to turn back. On the way back we took a long shortcut through the parking lot at Sea World before making another wrong turn and surmounting two steep bridges that we didn't really need to surmount and so had to unsurmount them in the opposite direction before finally stumbling back to the bike shop. I know San Diego to be a strikingly beautiful city from previous trips, but you would not have guessed it from our ride. At least we could console ourselves that we got some exercise.

Anna's response to hearing of our cycling misadventures: "I hope you guys are finally over being active." Fair enough. Next time we'll spend the afternoon shopping and eating in La Jolla.

It was, for me, a day of losses. Not only did I get us lost on the bikes. But I managed to lose my American Express card at a restaurant and the book I was reading on the plane home. Double bonus: it was a library book, so I get to go hang my head in shame and be scolded by a librarian. This is bad for me because I am borderline sociopathic about keeping myself aware and on alert when travelling. As a result, that kind of thing really rattles and frustrates me.

Not every trip can be a joyful experience start to finish. Luckily, an al fresco glass of wine in the California coastal night air, is enough to make it a good trip. Seeing my beloved friends makes it worthwhile above all else.

[Books] Book Look: The Thief, by Fuminori Nakamura

Book Look: The Thief, by Fuminori Nakamura: I have clearly developed a habit of reading Asian crime fiction. The past couple of months it has been Qiu Xiaolong's Shanghai based police procedurals. That got sidetracked when I left the one I was reading on a plane, so this month we move to Japan.

I don't remember how I stumbled on The Thief. My usual M.O. when trolling around the web is to add a book/CD/product to my Amazon Wish List if I want to keep it in mind for the future. That suggests The Thief had popped up as recommended on some site I frequent. Unfortunately, by the time I get to reading them, I can't remember where these books are coming from and now I'm curious to know who recommended it.

The Thief is not a police procedural -- there are no police to be seen. What it is, is straightforward noir. A loner criminal tries to live by a code of honor. Our protagonist is a pickpocket by trade, although he has a minor in general thievery such as shoplifting and has at least one major heist involving guns and violence on his resume. These days he tries to keep to his place. He only picks the pockets of "The Rich" who he identifies by their clothes, mostly. Once in possession of their wallets he takes the cash but drop the wallet and any other contents into a mailbox thus returning the rest to rightful owner while also insulating himself from any potential link to victim. He also feels compelled to bring white-knight assistance to a young boy, whose desperate, degenerate mother is using him to shoplift for her. This later comes back to bite him when a big bad gangster from his past needs him to do one more job.

Boilerplate stuff, really, as far as plot and character go. Fuminori-san does a excellent job with atmosphere, however. The seedy, depressive darkness of Noir is rendered as well as I have ever read. Should you read The Thief. I wouldn't make a point of it. It has good qualities, it is brief, and has moments of cleverness, especially in the resolution of the final test the gangster places on our protagonist. But I doubt you'll find emotional investment, and the hints at deeper issues of fate and control don't seem developed enough to grab your attention. Still, it's a good time passer. It's a good travel book (a book to have with you when you are travelling). I guarantee no harm will come to you from reading it if my description intrigues you.

[Rant] The Trouble With Lance

The Trouble With Lance: Good, upper-middle-class progressives everywhere were devastated when Lance Armstrong got slapped with a doping charge. They value their fitness and disease charity work as major self-definers and Lance is the guy who has bravely taken both activities to the limit. He is a driven, clean cut, well-spoken guy with all the right credentials to be an icon for suburbanites looking to have it all and be appropriately socially conscious while doing so. Plus, he has an awesome brand name. It's unthinkable that there should be a cloud over him. What will we do with all these yellow wristbands?

What we know (sort of): He had a suspicious positive test back in 1999 but nothing came of it upon retest. The same sort of thing seemed to happen in 2001. Tests from '09 and '10, according to the USADA (U.S. Anti-Doping Agency), are indicative of "manipulation of his blood", although those tests are not completely reliable and who knows what counts as "blood manipulation". The evidence is suggestive but tenuous, especially when you consider that throughout his career other riders had been getting caught all around him. If he's such a big juicer, why'd it take so long? The guy has retired, un-retired and re-retired -- now suddenly we're worried about 1999?

What we do have now is about 10 other riders, including former teammates, who ratted him out as part of a plea deals. Former teammate Tyler Hamilton is hawking a "tell-all" that is the 900 lb. gorilla in this room. And this is really the heart of Lance's problem. Whether they are being truthful or they are just grasping for mercy in their own interest, it's safe to say that they don't like Lance. In fact, it turns out very few people who know Lance, like Lance. He is surly. He has a history of bullying anyone he perceives as doing anything that might interfere with his legend. (Here's the latest sample of that.)

Not that there is anything wrong with that. Well, there is of course, but we all have personal shortcomings. It doesn't change the good his charity work has done. And it doesn't make him any less of a cycling phenomena. Even if he was juiced he won the TdF all those times over other cyclists who were juiced. So in relative terms, there is no questioning his athletic bona-fides. Note that the folks who would be in line to assume Lance's vacated titles are, to a man, convicted or accused juicers themselves. Frankly, considering the number of riders that are doped, pro cycling should probably just roll with it and make it legal.

Lance says he's quitting the fight because he doesn't believe he can win; in other words the USADA is on a witch hunt. He is either being truthful about his motives or he is getting out of the fight with some plausible deniability before it turns against him. I suspect the latter because he doesn't seem to me like someone who would ever back off. On the other hand, it is entirely possibly that any further publicity, even in his favor would be a negative for his life and earning power and charity work and since he's already retired it might make sense for him to just back out.

And what of the motives of the witnesses? Plea deals are always suspect. Are they being honest, or are they angling for a break or just a chance to punch back at a bully? There is certainly a whiff of comeuppence wafting through the proceedings.

Unless some new facts appears, all we'll have to guide us is our best guesses about the motives of those involved. In other words all we'll have to guide us is our own biases.

Dismantling illusions to reveal the truth is a noble endeavour, but if you never find the truth all you're left with is the hole the illusion filled. In this case the illusion did an awful lot of good -- the truth just resolves a bicycle race. I don't see any winners.

[Detroit] Dissin' The D

Dissin' The D: It's been awhile since I pimp-slapped Detroit so lets have special link set just for that purpose.
  • The Detroit Water and Sewage Department employs a farrier (a horse-shoer) despite the fact that they do not have any horses. They are apparently not allowed to fire him thanks to the union collective bargaining agreement. "The city pays $29,245 in salary and about $27,000 in benefits for the horseshoer position."
  • Jet's Pizza is no longer delivering to Detroit after dark after a driver was shot. They previously used to send two people on every delivery, one armed. Now they are not even going to take the risk. Snarky as I sound about this stuff, please remember this when you read those feel good stories about renewal and revival. Facts on the ground are quite different. A very telling article.
  • The Detroit Institute of Arts was broke and on the verge of dissolution, Presumably because places that are too dangerous for pizza delivery are not generally populated with partons of the arts. But, they actually did a delightfully creative job of financing themselves and seem to have turned things around, at least temporarily. Three cheers -- or maybe just two. Did they consider going to their market instead of trying to bribe their market to come into Detroit? Why not relocate to Troy or Ann Arbor? You can't tell me that wouldn't have been a better long term solution.
  • Acid-fingered Drew Magary (he has to teflon coat his keyboard to stop it from burning away) really lays into The Lions, beginning with a sound dissing of Michigan first (although he actually is referring to Detroit mostly, he just has no map sense). Magary's schtick is to profanely pulverize his targets and he is awfully good at it. "Every loyal Lions fan has had to flee the area to go live in a Florida shipping container. And NOW the Lions finally have the balls to be good? What a dick move. Seriously." Love it.

[Good Links] Trip the Link Fantastic

Trip the Link Fantastic: Our usual odds and ends.
  • This is the reason I never involve myself in what passes for political debate. The sad thing is, the people who are parodied by this will never see that it applies to them.
  • If it seems like Bill Murray is a perfect fit for all those Wes Anderson films, it's because he lives a very Wes Anderson-y real life.
  • I gave up playing table games in casinos, but maybe I should have held out for this. It seems at a baccarat table there was a deck shuffling snafu and deck after deck was coming through with the cards in the exact same order. Gamblers caught on and won huge, now the casino is suing them for their money back. Not sure why the gamblers should have to pay for the casino's screw up, but what's really amazing is that it took 41 consecutive winning hands for the dealer to catch on. I'm guessing that dealer is now bussing tables in the buffet.
  • U.S. gambling laws make no sense whatsoever. The most pernicious form of gambling, playing the numbers, is legally sanctioned pretty much coast to coast and you can play it in any convenience store. We call it the lottery. Casino gambling with slots and table games are popping up everywhere, but table games and slots are mathematically certain to have the gambler at a disadvantage. Poker has finally gained legitimacy which makes it the only widely accessible casino game where you can have an theoretical advantage if you are better than the other players. Looks like courts are finally acknowledging this so in abackwards way, things are aligning with reality. Now if we could only get them to realize sports gambling is, if anything, the most gambler friendly form of wagering maybe I could place my bets at Walgreen's.