Thursday, December 13, 2012

The Month That Was - November 2012

The Month That Was - November 2012: That sad thing about posting this so late is that I am a ready under the gun to December going. Sorry about my tardiness, but it's been astoundingly busy. I have spent little time at home or in my routines since before Thanksgiving.

Unlike in Game of Thrones, winter is already here. I had a nice 10 day swing out west with absolutely perfect weather (see below) and returned to good old Michigan to a 27 degrees cold snap. Now, 27 degrees is not that bad -- there will be times yet to come that make 27 sound balmy -- but it is most definitely winter.

[Travel] Call of the West
[Tech, Cars] Machine Rebellion
[TV] Three Step Up

[Travel] Call of the West

Call of the West: This was my longest trip out west yet. As I have for the last I-don't-know-how-many years (maybe 8? 10?) I spent Thanksgiving in the Southwest. This originally started because it was easy to lose myself in Vegas over the holiday, but it eventually extended into destination hopping over the weekend and sometimes longer. This time I flew out nearly a week early and headed north of Vegas to the Valley of Fire to run a half-marathon.

Valley of Fire is a Nevada State Park about 45 minutes north of Las Vegas. If you have experienced any of the red rock area Parks, the landscape will be familiar: bizarrely-shaped, immense, looming rock formations dropped on to otherwise featureless ground. It's not as dramatic as some places, say Bryce Canyon or Monument Valley, but it's the same flavor. Each year they run a series of races through the park -- 5K, 10K, half-marathon, and marathon. I ran the half-marathon (13.1 miles), which is about my maximum distance.

At a pre-run spaghetti chow-down in a local motel discussions turned to the course. One person claimed to have driven it earlier in the day and said that there was a large hill at the beginning but the rest wasn't too bad. Another claimed that it was very hilly but you don't notice it because of the beautiful landscape. Well, it was very hilly from start to finish -- not a flat longer than 50 yards -- and fairly steep. Climb, plunge, climb, plunge, repeat. And it was beautiful, but believe me, not so beautiful that you didn't notice the pain. Toughest race I ever ran. Some of the smarter people simply walked every uphill and flew through the downhills. I was foolish enough to try to run all the climbs but that only lasted about the first 8 miles. I did a good bit of walking on the last five -- and I rarely walk during a race. I ended up about 15 minutes off my personal best, which was better than I expected given how hard it was. The best thing? Post-race recovery was chocolate milk and peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. Awesome! It was like being a little kid again. Beats Gatorade and Powerbars any day.

The downside was that I was really too tired to do any hiking afterwards. I was able to drive back through the park and appreciate the scenery a bit more but I couldn't even force myself to wander down any of the trails -- just had nothing left in the tank. Still, you can check out some Valley of Fire photos from a previous visit.

From Valley of Fire the next stop was Sedona, AZ. I had been to Sedona before, but I stayed in a resort outside town and really only got into the main tourist area for a couple of hours. This time I stayed right in the main area at Amara Resort, a very nice place located well below the main street. To get out was to climb the equivalent several flights of stairs, but the setting was really astounding. It's a fine place all around. Good service, free shuttle service for those not inclined to climb, free yoga class every morning, and the pool and courtyard are definitively lovely. There are two luxury resorts right in the main part of town, Amara is the less expensive of the two. The high end on is called L'Auberge and it is just down the street from Amara and about twice the price. I can't understand why since it's hard for me to see where it is that much better.

Sedona seems to have been created just for the views -- and they are spectacular in 360 degrees. Actually it starts on the way in if you are coming from the north, which I was. Just south of Flagstaff you branch off onto Route 89A which is a soaring wind up through the mountains then back down through a heavily forested area leaving you in the heart of town. Just stand on the street and turning around -- the background defies belief with red rock mountains the look as though they have been painted into the landscape. Sit at one of the outdoor cafes and it's like being in the middle of a National Geographic 3D extravaganza.

What's even cooler is the most of the mountains and rocks can be hiked and climbed fairly easily. My first hike was a climb of Doe Mountain which is a relatively moderate, but scenic hike to the top of a mesa (Doe Mountain is not a mountain, but a mesa). Once up there are pathways crisscrossing about half of the mesa and the other half can be easily navigated, although there are not actual paths. The views from the top were amazing.

What was not amazing was that my camera decided to fail. My once trusty Nikon D70 DSLR ceased to work while on this trip. Something wrong with the shutter mechanism. I took it to the local camera store and they almost immediately said I would have to send it to Nikon to be fixed. Given it's age and obsolete technology it's probably not worth fixing. Sad -- that camera had accompanied me all over, from Hawaii to Tulum to Newfoundland. Vaya con dios, old pal.

So I was reduced to using my camera phone but still, it's hard not to get great photos around Sedona. I even tried to capture a few videos, but the problem with videos was all the other hikers kept talking. Standing on top of Doe Mountain trying to capture the stunning landscape from high above and some idiot standing ten yards away from me decides to take a call on his cell phone. Loudly. Won't it be sweet ten years from now when I reminisce about this trip and I fire up a video only to hear this clown and his wife planning dinner?

Even that, however, cannot ruin the beauty. For hike number two the next day I chose the paradigmatic hike for Sedona: Cathedral Rock Trail. This is a pretty steep one, mostly climbing over slickrock. Not for those with a bad fear of heights -- fortunately, I only have a mild fear of heights, but I did notice that weak knee reaction kicking in on a couple of occasions. I noticed that anaerobic burn in my lungs on a couple of occasions, too. Technically interesting hiking and lovely views, although be prepared to butt-ride some of the steeper passes on the way down.

So for a couple of days I had the wonderful routine of getting up in the morning and going for a gorgeous hike then retreating to my resort and sitting out at the pool for the afternoon, thanks to the unseasonable warmth. A routine I could really get used to.

I should point out that there are things about Sedona that could grate on the nerves, the primary one being the unrelenting new agey-ness of the place. It not a youthful place either -- it can seem as if every last-chance drugged-out hippie-shaman pulled what was left of his gray hair into a ponytail and settled here. Also, the restaurants are really only mediocre. Southwest cuisine is everywhere, and at each place declared to be genuine, which I suppose this being the Southwest, it literally is. But all this is tolerable.

I need to spend about a week in Sedona -- and recapture that routine. With a proper camera this time. I vow to make this happen.

Coming up fast on Thanksgiving, the next stop had to be Vegas. The routine is set. Hit the major sportsbooks to find the best lines for the NFL games. Try out the new restaurants and enjoy the old favorites. Poker -- possibly, but that's getting to be a bit hit or miss for me. Stripwalk under the flashing lights. For me it's as traditional as turkey and stuffing. And in lieu of turkey and stuffing I had Gordon Ramsay cook me up a filet mignon at his steakhouse. How's that can of cranberry sauce working out for ya?

There's actually quite a bit of change going on in Vegas of late. There is an enormous development going on between the Flamingo and Imperial Palace called The Linq -- it's going to have plenty or bar/restaurant and retail, along with a bowling alley (which is a brilliant addition to the Strip), but the big attraction will be the observation wheel, like the one London is famous for, to be called The High Roller. This is tentatively scheduled for a late 2013 opening. It will likely be delayed, so I suspect it will be a highlight of my 2014 Thanksgiving.

Also, the Imperial Palace is no longer the Imperial Palace. It has been renamed "The Quad" and is also under heavy construction, although still open. It's a pretty low end place; I've never stayed there, but back when I played table games it was my go-to destination. Low limits, zany people, always a high energy place. They had, and still have, dealertainers -- dealers dressed as hollywood icons who often dance about with the music. Vastly more fun to play at a $10 table there than say a $25 table in a morgue-casino like the Venetian. It was also one of the most wonderfully kitschy places ever. It looked like Dr. Hahn's evil fortress from Enter the Dragon. Considering the new name I'm guessing it's going to be remade along a college campus theme. Sad. I dropped a buttload of money there to demon blackjack at the height of my gambling. (OK, maybe it's not so bad that it's gone.)

Another thing that's quite noticeable to me is the increase in Thanksgiving traffic. Wednesday before is my favorite day. It's as empty as Vegas gets, which is not very empty, and most of the people there are Asian or European. I suppose as soon as their early Thanksgiving dinner with the relatives is over, folks start heading into town for the long weekend. By 8 or 9 on Thanksgiving night, it looks like any other Thursday with the usual cross section of drunken idiots, porn slappers, dazed tourists and other denizens of the Strip.

The holiday weekend proper is a complete zoo, so I get out on Friday morning. This time I got out to Death Valley -- it involved a bit of spider dodging on the roads. You see what appears to be a mouse or chipmunk slowly crossing the road and as you get closer you realize it's a tarantula. It is, I think, the tail end of their mating season so they get active. It's a little creepy to think about, so let's not.

If you have a picture of Death Valley in your head, it is probably an endless expanse of dry flat land, and there is certainly that aspect to it, but it really is one of the most overlooked National Parks (it is also, I think, the largest). Peppered throughout the park are fascinating little sites. There is enormous variety. I was able to take my SUV on a treacherous trail -- Titus Canyon Trail that went from a savage washboard road, to a twisty climbing rock passage into the mountains then back down through a flat dirt road between towering canyon walls and then back out into the desert in the morning, followed by a visit to Scotty's Castle, a lonely mansion built on one of the thre oasis in the Valley -- with a fascinating story about it -- then on to Ubehebe Crater, a dormant volcano that invites you to slide through the loose volcanic rock down into the center, then burns out your lungs as you try to stagger back up through it. A full day of adventure.

There are two lodge facilities inside the park, the Furnace Creek Inn and Furnace Creek Resort. The resort is a broad, family oriented facility -- Motel 6 level rooms, a western themed bar and restaurant, pool, shuffleboard, bike rental, etc. The Inn is more adult and luxurious. It has a decent stylish restaurant where I spent a couple of dinners sitting out on the porch and watching the sunset over the mountains. The Inn is also about double the price of the Resort (which is expensive enough), and you can use the facilities of either. They are both overpriced, the Inn especially so, but because of the vastness of Death Valley National Park you pay for their convenience. The nearest town is Beattie only a few miles outside the northern entrance but it is a hardscrabble desert town with only a handful of run down motels. From there you stretch out to about 45 minutes to an hour away to Pahrump, famous for its legal brothels, where you can find a decent mid-range property. If you want a proper vacation lodging you either pay the price to stay in the park, or you are two and half hours away in Vegas.

Not everyone is unaware of Death Valley's charms. Cost and obscurity aside, the park properties can fill up on busy weekends. Families in the Resort, couples mostly in the Inn. But there is a definite sense among everyone that you're in on a secret. Three or four nights in Death Valley would be a tremendous active family vacation. (Photos from my first trip back in '07.)

Now winding down, I headed back to Vegas for a couple more nights. I must say the Vegas portions of this trip were pretty pedestrian. The hotels I stayed in were VDARA and Elara. Both were fine, well positioned, and comparatively inexpensive, but nothing special. However much exploring I do on the Strip I always seems to end up spending most of my time in Bellagio or Caesars. I should probably just confine my rooms to those spots in the future -- Bellagio rooms have been renovated since I last stayed there and it remains the classiest if not the flashiest Strip property. Caesar's has add a new high end tower and is adding another one to be run by the guys who run Nobu, the fancy-schmancy sushi restaurants. Good to se development activity return to Vegas after the recessionary crash.

I have a system for making football bets. It has served me well in that I have never done worse than break more or less even with two or three nice wins over the years. Still, this year it kicked out bets on a whole bunch of games and as any gambler will tell you, betting lots of games increases the likelihood of ending pretty close to even -- which I did, exactly.

But traditions aren't about generating shock and awe. They are about comfort and familiarity. As weird as my personal Thanksgiving tradition is, there's no denying that's what I get.

[Tech, Cars] Machine Rebellion

Machine Rebellion: They're turning on me. The Rise of the Machines has begun. My laptop -- my sole computer -- now into what must be it's six or seventh year has started making angry grinding noise (the fan) and what's worse, it's eensy 128 gig drive is closing in on 70% full.

My camera decided to stop working. After years of trusty, if not particularly convenient, service, my Nikon D70s developed a nasty problem with the shutter. I was out in Sedona at the time, hoping to take some shots of the astounding scenery, and found myself stuck with naught but my camera phone (and a notoriously weak camera phone it is - HTC Trophy). Interestingly there was a camera shop right across from where I was staying. I was pretty sure it was toast, but I took it to the fellow there in the hopes that it might be one of those known problems that had a simple, magical fix. Nope. His answer: "You going to have to send it to Nikon for repair." Probably not worth it for 6 megapixels and no automatic image stabilization. Still, with a little attention and a light hand, it took some amazing pictures. See my galleries.

Lastly, my car started burning oil. This may be partially my fault. I tend to run up about 5000 miles before I change the oil. Last time I took it in for a change, I was way down. Most of the oil had burned off. The check engine light had come on, but it comes on for all sorts of reasons and I tend to just ignore it, so if it was trying to warn me about the oil, well, that's what you get for crying wolf. This has triggered in my mind the question of whether it's time to buy a new car. Buying a new car rarely makes economic sense -- it is almost always cheaper to get your current ride repaired. Look at it this way: Worst case is that you have $5000 in repairs every couple of years to keep the thing going. That's going to be less than your payments and increased insurance over that same time period on a new car. Reliability and durability-wise things would have to get awfully bad for it to be cheaper to get a new car. Every extra year you can eek out of your ride is money in your pocket. Buying a new car is a matter of convenience and, frankly, self-image.

Aside: It makes me wonder how many more cars I will own in my life. My current car, along with the previous two, were purchased new and owned for 9+ years each. (For the record: '84 Celica, '93 Camry, '02 Camry.) If I were to get a '13 model, extrapolation tells me the one after that would be around 2023. If I spend a decade with a '23 model, that would make me 73 years old when I was ready to get the next one. A possibility if I stay healthy. Of course, I was really hoping for a flying car by that time, but oh well. After that -- that takes me to my mid-eighties at which point I probably shouldn't be driving, or better yet, rich enough to have a chauffeur. Of course, if you factor in that cars get ever more durable and that there is an inverse correlation between annual driving mileage and age, I am probably looking at 2 more cars purchased for the rest of my life. If I buy, it may as well be something special.

But the point is that I am being betrayed by technology. All at once. I should look at these things as an opportunity. Get a new camera -- smaller, cheaper, and better in every way. A new laptop -- or better yet, step into the 21st century and get an ultrabook and a tablet, or maybe one of those nifty Microsoft Surface dealies. And as much as I think most new car technology is unnecessary and counterproductive complication there are things that would be nice. Voice interface and social networking are crap, but I've rented cars with backup cameras and found them very useful, and the latest music and mapping technology would probably be nice.

I should be pleased about all this shouldn't I? As long as I have new tech to buy, I'm still in the game and still keeping up on things. Living long and prospering. If I didn't need new tech, then either the world has stagnated or I have.

[TV] Three Step Up

Three Step Up: Three shows, Boardwalk Empire, The Walking Dead, and Dexter demonstrated a nice jump up in quality this year. None are remotely close to pantheon status, but it was nice to see at least an upgrade in quality.

Dexter - My long time favorite guilty pleasure was getting less and less pleasurable. It's the sort of thing where as quality slowly deteriorates over the seasons you start to wonder what the hell you are doing still watching it. A funny thing about TV versus movies: Part of the appeal of TV is making an almost personal connection to the characters. Movies can survive on plot and actions, and in fact, often have little time for real character development and interpersonal evolution. TV is just the opposite, it lives and dies by the appeal of it's characters. No matter how good you are at action and plot, you can't hold eyeballs for 100 episodes. The only way to do that is to create characters that people feel compelled to spend time with. Often they are folks you just like to hang out with -- Seinfeld, Big Bang Theory -- sometimes they are awful people but so magnetic you can't look away -- Tony Soprano, Don Draper -- but whatever the case, you watch out of a desire to see what they are up to and how they are going about their lives, just as if they were real.

Dexter has always been borderline in that respect. While the lead character, and his portrayal by Michael C. Hall, has always be fun, the rest of the cast and B-stories have been excruciating. The first couple of seasons, as we got into the back story of Dexter and the newness of a serial killer as a good guy, it was all in naughty fun. Then things went steadily south. By the end of last year they were really pulling stuff out of their posteriors with ghosts and sister-love and all sorts of random crap. The only questions became, was Dex going to do a kill in this episode or do I have to suffer the side characters again. Degrading the connection to the one valuable character prompted the question: "Wait, why do I watch this?"

This season made some significant steps in clearing that up. Almost a reboot, they began by acting as if the last three season never happened, or at least dismissing them. They're still struggling with the right way to handle villains -- the arcs are not smooth, they dwell and hint then abruptly close the storylines -- but they've put Dexter at risk and heightened the conflict by adding the risk that he will bring his sister down with him and making his rationalization get ever more precarious. That's made it interesting again -- or at least a worthy guilty pleasure again.

The Walking Dead - I had dropped this show from regular viewing before the end of the first season. It was clearly not even up to the level of an acceptable guilty pleasure. Every episode seemed to be 45 minutes of exposition and useless whining spiced up with 5 minutes of zombie kills. I avoided this season but then I read a couple of reviews that said everything changed. And it did. The big thing that changed was the characters stopped pontificating about moral dilemmas and screeching about how you can't make this or that sacrifice, even when their survival depended on it. It was abysmal dialogue and horrendous drama. Now they do what needs to be done to survive and shut their traps about it, at times achieving a sort of riveting badassery. If it makes sense to say a zombie apocalypse drama has gotten more realistic, then it has. It's still borderline. It leans heavily into being misery porn -- things just keep getting more and more awful -- and the characters are not particularly likeable or interesting, even the good guys. Still, in this season we've gotten a more complex and curious world, along with hints that progress to dealing with zombies is being made and there is an ever so small sliver of hope for the species. So I'm back watching it for now, though I'm not sure how long it will last without any characters I particularly care about.

Boardwalk Empire - Terence Winter is the main brain behind Boardwalk Empire and coming from a Sopranos background as he does, comparisons are begged. Bottom line: Not Even Close. Boardwalk... has never been in danger of losing my attention. It is a truly solid mob drama -- great acting, strong stories, lots of hard guy action, and a full dose of HBO-level sex. The characters are complex and involving, although in a moral sense they are basically the same -- they do terrible things but have bright spots in their souls; bright spots that can either be strengths or weaknesses on a varying basis.

There is no subtlety in Boardwalk Empire. Everything is a plain as a lump of granite and it hits as hard when dropped on your head. Oh there are feeble attempts at something deeper. Portrayals of the oppression of women and blacks are appropriately progressive. Small events can have unintended consequences. But for the most part it's who's taking advantage of whom. It's all done with the utmost professionalism and attention to craft, but there is no high concept behind it. The story of The Sopranos was the story of human capacity for self-delusion. There was a mob drama backdrop but the gangster conflicts were short and sweet and only existed to move the personal story of the characters forward towards the high concept. Boardwalk... is all about being a mobster and maneuvering for power given whatever core of humanity you have in you. In The Sopranos, being a mobster was a tool for illustrating the human condition. That is the difference between craft and art.

Which is not to discount craft. I'll watch the hell out of Boardwalk.... It's ripping good stuff. Fine, fine entertainment. Great fodder for writing and comment. And about the best we can hope for in the post-Golden Age.