Sunday, May 06, 2012

The Month That Was - April 2012

The Month That Was - April 2012: Well that was quick. At least it seemed quick. No idea what happened to April. I did no travelling. Nothing all that eventful occurred. (Interestingly, my friends did all the traveling this month and all I got was their lousy facebook updates.) It was all about my day job. I get a month like that every once in awhile. I'm hoping it doesn't happen again soon.

[Books] Book Look: Trespassers on the Roof of the World
[Books] Book Look: Holidays in Heck
[Health and Fitness] Running in Place
[Movies] Flick Check: Pittfest
[Good Links] Kitchen Sink and Links

[Books] Book Look: Trespassers on the Roof of the World, by Peter Hopkirk

Book Look: Trespassers on the Roof of the World, by Peter Hopkirk: I read this as part of research on a writing project I am toying with for when I'm done with the current writing project I'm toying with, and I was mesmerized.

The stories concern the opening of Tibet to the outside world. Geographically isolated and inhospitable and relentlessly xenophobic, Tibet was one of the last great mysteries of the age of exploration. A dangling forbidden fruit, the intrepid came from far and wide to try to be the first ones to get a taste.

Much of this takes place at the peak of the British Empire and the major concern for the British was Russia. It was feared that were Russia to make inroads and alliances with Tibet, that would put India's northern border in peril. The earliest journeys were completed by Indian nationals, called “pundits", in the service of the Raj. These were astounding men who surreptitiously counted paces to measure distances over thousands of miles and used boiling water measure altitude. Even so, none ever made it to the ultimate goal, the Tibetan capitol of Lhasa.

Many non-English Westerners also tried to reach Lhasa for various reasons -- gold, evangelism, adventure and the royalties that would come from the books they wrote. These included at least two women. All were turned back. (A Japanese explorer, who for obvious reasons could pose as one who belonged, did make it for a brief time, but even he was eventually discovered.) The Tibetans, showing remarkable reticence, often simply blocked their paths for months and eventually offered guidance and supplies to make their return.

It took an armed expedition of some 5000 soldiers under British command, and no small amount of violent action, before the first modern white man set foot in Lhasa. Although originally suspicious and hostile toward the British for this action, the Tibetans came in time to become friends with the British, perhaps especially so because the alternatives for the technologically backwards plateau were so much worse, as they proved to be with the 1950 invasion by Mao's forces.

Hopkirk is the premier historian of “The Great Game" -- the cold war between Russia and Britain for control of Central Asia -- but he eschews the academic and weaves the facts into wonderful narratives. Whatever his bona fides as a historian, Hopkirk is a gifted storyteller. (In this way he reminds me a bit of Byron Farwell, whose work I've written of in the past. Both take history of of the dusty shelves with style and a tilt towards celebrating Imperial derring-do. This, I expect, sends purist historians into fits.) Should you read Trespassers...? Sure. It's a fascinating point in history that has relevance for the region today (Free Tibet!!) magnified by its telling through wonderfully written stories. I was sorry when I finished it. I need to pick me up some more Hopkirk.

[Books] Book Look: Holidays in Heck, by P. J. O'Rourke

Book Look: Holidays in Heck, by P.J. O'Rourke: Good ol' P.J. You can always depend him for good humoured, but keen, insight. He previously documented his time as a correspondent in some of the most dangerous places in the world in Holidays in Hell. Now in his sixties and forbidden by age and spouse and good sense for pressing his luck in further in yet another hazardous rat hole somewhere, he's turned his attention to old late middle age in general and the family vacation in particular; trying but not terrifying, hence Holidays in Heck.

That's not to say the stories here are lightweight. Although there are entertaining tales of skiing in Ohio (yes, Ohio) and less than glowing reviews of a couple of leviathan museums (Field Museum in Chicago and the American History Museum on the National Mall), there is also a lengthy trip to China pre-Three Gorges dam, short jaunt to Kabul where he comes to the conclusion that nobody knows anything, and a two-part brush with cancer with mortality as the antagonist -- all carry weight but lightened by comedy.

It is perhaps not as high energy, ironic, or skeptical as his previous stuff, but that's also true to his years. If nothing else, P.J. is still everyman confronting an increasingly bizarre and incomprehensible world with wit and spirit and a deep appreciation of the absurd. Should you read Holidays in Heck? Heck yes.

[Health and Fitness] Running in Place

Running in Place:  At least it seems that way.  Maybe even backwards. In wake of my plan a couple months ago to write more about my running/biking and other fitness activities, I have nothing good to report.  I ran two races in April both of which were awful  -- that is, my times were awful, the races themselves were terrific.  One was the Big House Big Heart run which is a 10K through the U Mich campus ending on the fifty yard line of Michigan Stadium, which is deeply cool, even though the race was soaked in a chilling rain.  The other was a 5-mile trail run through the Pinckney Rec Area - a real lung buster filled with hills so steep it's difficult to even maintain even a jog.  Temperature at race the start was an unseasonably cold 39 degrees. 

In both cases my times were significantly slower than the previous year.  In the case of the trail race, so much so that I suspect that they mismeasured this year's route to longer than 5 miles.  It's got me very rattled.  I was feeling good with my time after the Sarasota Half Marathon in March and now I'm very down on myself.  I suppose it's possible these were flukes, but another bad race or two and I am going to have to step back and reassess what I am doing.

The good news is I got my bike back from the shop after a tune up.  Cycling season begins on the next warm weekend.  Provided I don't have to mow the damn lawn and battle immortal weeds and killer wasps all weekend.  Then after that swimming season, once the lake warms up enough.

[Movies] Flick Check: Pittfest

Flick Check: Pittfest:  Three movies, all of which starred Brad Pitt, and all of which were enormously well received.  I'm at odds with some of the general assessments, but I was impressed by Pitt in all three.  The guy really is one of the best actors working.  To me his career brings to mind Paul Newman, someone who was more famed for his looks early on but turned out to be a quality artist. 
The Curious Case of Benjamin Button - A very sweet film.  Beautifully shot -- every scene looked flawlessly composed.  I'm not entirely sure what the film meant, if there was any intended meaning other than a Gumpian “life is like a box of chocolates..."  It was just a nicely done, if a little slow, documentation of the bell curve of our lives, all brought into clearer focus by F. Scott Fitzgerald's gimick of someone who ages backwards -- born a child in an old man's body and ending a demented old man in a child's body.  As you can guess some serious makeup work was needed, but not just to make Pitt look old, there are a number of sequences later on where they make Pitt look 20 (he must be pushing 50), which was a bit mind-blowing and made me wonder whether it wasn't done digitally after the fact.    Anyway, decent flick.  Sentimental without being cloying.  I  wouldn't go out of my way to watch it again, but I wouldn't go out of my way to turn it off either.

The Tree of Life - There are a number of religious and philosophical ideas floating around in this film, the main one being almost cliche: How can God let bad things happen to good people?  I always found this question silly.  Do people really adopt a religion and honestly believe their faith will somehow insulate them from tragedy?  The Tree of Life explores this, interwoven with the question of grace versus nature -- the notion that when we pursue pleasures (ambitions and delusions of happiness) beyond an appreciation of our role in God's creation, we face disappointment and risk harming ourselves and others.

This is accomplished through the portrayal of a suburban family in the fifties with a tyrannical father (Pitt) that eventually falls to grief when one of the children is killed in Vietnam as a series of half dream-like flashbacks from the present day.  Intermingled is a contrasting 2001-ish sequence summarizing the story creation from big bang, through star formation, through dinosaurs -- all in the hope of putting the individual drama in a universal perspective.  Very experimental.  It's quite admirable really.  Rarely does a film attempt something out of the ordinary and even more rarely do you see a blatantly pro-religion film.  And it's almost impossible to name another thoughtful pro-Christian, or at least pro-Judeo/Christian film (a fact that was missed in most reviews I have read). 

Not surprisingly, Pitt nailed the portrayal of the father-bully.  Overall, it was visually hypnotic at times but still, I found myself wishing they would get to the damn point.  I think I'd pass on watching again.  Films like this, and 2001 seem so overwhelmed by their own aesthetic that they believe it's their duty to offer grand insights, when they would be better off with a simple story.

[Addendum: After I wrote this, I discovered Roger Ebert has named it one of the ten best movies of all time.  Um, no.  Not even close.]

Moneyball - I am pompous enough to tell you that I read Bill James before you did, but never would I have guessed they could have made of movie about baseball stats. OK, the movie isn't really about baseball stats.  It's about redemption.  The larger philosophical plot is the triumph of the rational over the mythic.  Sort of like Galileo versus the Church writ small.  In this case the Church is the old boy network of baseball -- as hidebound and closed minded as the most fervent fundamentalists you could find.  Galileo is played by Billy Beane who, when charged with building a winning team without money embraces reasoned statistical analysis to gain an edge.

From a personal standpoint this story had enormous appeal to me.  I'm the guy who uses spreadsheets to make football bets in Vegas and just spent weeks pouring though the quantitative aspects of betting on thoroughbred racing even though I will not likely get much of a chance to do so.  I don't wear a bike helmet because the statistical chances of it benefitting me are so small they don't outweigh the cost of looking like a dork. I think a Caribbean vacation in October is a good idea because the chances of actually getting hit by a hurricane aren't great enough to counter the discounted prices.  I often wonder how much of my Diet Coke is statistically missing at the quantum level. 

So you see, this is right in my wheelhouse.  Especially, the part where the priests of the traditional myths smugly sneer about how wrong you are if things don't work out.  Makes me wanna slap some heads.

Wisely, Moneyball is not about that conflict in a vacuum.  It's about how it affected Billy Beane (Pitt) who stuck to his guns and brought quantitative analysis in sports into the mainstream.  Beane was one of the most highly touted baseball prospects in history.  He gave up a Stanford scholarship because the old-school scouts convinced him that he couldn't miss in the Bigs. He ended up never reaching his imagined potential, and living in years of frustration because of it.  Had someone taken a more quantitative look at him, he wouldn't have had such crushing expectations placed on him.  He would have gone to Stanford and possibly developed into a decent player with a satisfying, if unspectacular career.  Instead, he had to cope day to day with being the guy who never lived up to expectations.  Now a general manager, he was able to change the way things are done in baseball, through which he achieves a certain redemption, and a bit of proof that he wasn't a failure, he was just wronged.

If anything, he changed baseball too well.  Now pretty much all teams use quantitative methods of player evaluation, so his edge is gone.  The rich rule once more.

Despite its dry sounding topics, Moneyball is full of energy and wit.  It not about the great mysteries of the life, just a good story told with good humor from start to finish.  Pitt gets the chance to show his comic chops and does so extremely well.  Not everyone can hang with Jonah Hill or Philip Seymour Hoffman in humorous crosstalk.  Pitt does, while never leaving any doubt that he's the lead.  I'd watch Moneyball again, for sure, and nod knowingly throughout.

[Good Links] The Kitchen Sink and Links

The Kitchen Sink and Links: Getting to be a regular feature. It used to be I'd comment regularly on things I read in magazines, now links. Like all of history, the nouns change but the verbs stay the same. (Note: I've been blogging for over 13 years now. You'd think that would carry some sort of deeper meaning, but I can't think of anything.)

Roger Ebert's Top Ten Movies of All Time. I had less than stellar things to say about The Tree of Life above. I compared it disparagingly to 2001. Both movies are on Ebert's list. He also picked the wrong Scorcese (Raging Bull over Goodfellas) and the wrong Hitchcock (Vertigo over Rear Window). Even Apocalypse Now is overrated. The guy can craft a beautiful movie review but there's no accounting for taste.

Graphic depiction of Lake and Ocean Depth. Tongue in cheek, but very cool. I recently saw the Nat Geo special on James Cameron dive into the Challenger Deep. Gotta admire the guy's guts and drive. Still doesn't make Avatar or Titanic worth watching.

When Matt Millen punch the Patriots GM in the Head. For NFL fans only. If you know the personalities involved in this story it's hilarious. Millen: “I was a fool for doing that, but you react, so what are you going to do?" Interestingly, this was also Millen's approach to the Lions' draft.

Senitment Kills. This article is extremely dense so don't dive into it unless you feel like ruminating on the state of modern culture. But the upshot is that hyper-sentimentality -- the regarding of unfiltered emotion as self justifying -- is coarsening the world and often leading to hostility and conflict. There is lots of speculation and supposing, but I found this paragraph to be spot on: "The habit of thought that a pop culture of treacle and a pop culture of anger hold in common is that we needn't polish the expression of our private feelings and sorrows into a form that's relevant and useful, even to strangers and fellow citizens... We can take for granted that our treacle or our anger speaks for itself and presume the relevance of private feelings to public discourse. If, in fact, we're drowning in a public culture of meanness, it is one that the public culture of cloying sweetness unwittingly helped create." To which I would add, GET OFF MY LAWN!!!!

Alpha Males on TV. Glaringly obvious omissions: Tony Soprano, Sterling Archer.

Striking Historic Photos of New York City. Very cool stuff. Makes me regret not having been in Manhattan for almost well over a year. Time to plan a trip.

Trailer Park Superhero. On the other hand, there so much fun going on right here in the glove.