Tuesday, December 10, 2013

The Month That Was - November 2013

The Month That Was - November 2013: Well here we are. Dug in for winter again. I have been busy with writing projects, one of which is agonizingly close to fruition. Details below. And, of course, with November comes Thanksgiving and with Thanksgiving comes Vegas. Details below also.

Around the house I made a minor run at textured painting, which was moderately successful. I've also started seriously drawing up plans to remodel the master bath, which I hope to get done in 2014, and I have a couple more painting projects that I hope to get done over the winter.

No book reviews this month. I've been catching up on Randy Wayne White's Doc Ford Mysteries for my distraction. I feel I bit of an affinity because they are set in and around the Florida Gulf islands, where I have spent a fair amount of enjoyable time. They're pretty well written with a solid formula and a nicely drawn lead and sidekick. White is a skilled outdoorsman with a scientific bent so he tends to fill the books with some interesting discursions on related topics. I had actually started reading this series from the beginning many years ago, but at one point they seemed to get gratuitously violent so I stopped. I have now picked up later in the series and the violence has taken a back seat. More about this when I catch up to the latest release.

In fact, short shrift on everything. Just a trip report and summary of my upcoming Kindle release. I have, since just before Thanksgiving, been at war with a terrible chest cold, which I am beginning to suspect must be some sort of mutant alien virus because it's been truly brutal and resistant to my common terrestrial immune system. It completely disrupted my vacation and is causing me to want nothing more than to crawl under the covers and disappear. More than usual.

[Books, Basho] Long Ago and Far Away and Here and Now
[Travel, Vegas] Spanning the Country, Being Thankful

[Books, Basho] Long Ago and Far Away and Here and Now

Long Ago and Far Away and Here and Now: As I've been hinting, what's coming next for me writing-wise is very esoteric. Back in 17th century Japan, a great poet named Matsuo Basho went on a journey north from Edo(Tokyo) and documented his travels and punctuated them with poems, what we would call Haiku. The book, entitled The Narrow Road to the Interior, became a huge sensation and has survived through the years as a seminal classic of Japanese literature.

Basho is almost certainly Japan's greatest poet. Most folks who read Narrow Road…, which in the U.S. is probably students and academics, tend to focus on it as a collection of poetry. The problem is that poetry loses nearly everything in translation. Even the shortest poems are deeply dependent on myriad subtleties of language, otherwise, they'd be prose. One could even argue that a working knowledge of Japanese would be insufficient, you would have to be near-native in your understanding of the language. So for me, with no knowledge of Japanese, reading the poetry is not particularly compelling. For exapmle: Basho is famous for writing what is considered one of the most perfect and exemplary Haiku (although this did not appear in Narrow Road...) about the sound a frog makes when jumping in a pond. To read the Haiku and see what I mean about translation look at this page. It contains 30 translations (thousands probably exist) and you can see how different they are, and how none of them truly capture anything that would considered an eternal work of art.

Basho was curmudgeonly character. An aging bachelor at the time he wrote Narrow Road..., in between the poetry he gives hints of uncertainty about the purpose of his journey and clearly has a growing concern with mortality -- remind you of anyone you know? As I read Narrow Road..., I read a travelogue of a man who was riddled with self-doubt, who was unsure of whether he felt compelled to travel to seek answers or escape questions. These are feelings I know intimately.

So in the popular spirit of re-writes of classics, I decided ol' Basho deserved one. The story becomes Basho's Inward Road and I focused on fleshing out Basho fears and emotional turmoil. I added doses of irony and humor, colored some characters, and colloquialized the language. The end result is, I think, something Basho would recognize -- one aging bachelor to another.

So now I am in the process of getting it setup for Kindle. It will be Kindle only unless I come to find there is a massive market for rewritten 17th century Japanese travelogues. It is short, barely novella length, so I'm thinking of a $1.99 price. I still need cover art. And I need to get the formatting right, which I don't remember being as hard as it's turning out to be. So it's not available just yet. If I can get everything sorted, I hope it will be by the end of the year.

Like I said, it's esoteric. But as esoteric as it is, I think it's worth reading. Obviously, it draws on my own feelings, but those cannot be unique, can they? So maybe, just maybe there is a small audience out there. That is the blessing of Kindle. If you are moved to write something, you can just write it and go. If nobody buys it, oh well. You live to fight and write another day. And something good could happen. From small things...

So with any luck, a link and maybe a quote next month.

[Travel, Vegas] Spanning the Country, Being Thankful

Spanning the Country, Being Thankful: I suppose I have just experienced a recurring nightmare of many travelers because the day before I left for Vegas I was struck with a devastating cold or flu or ebola or something. But flights were set and reservations past their cancel date so I was going to have to tough it out. At least I can confidently state that the beds at Cosmopolitan are very accomodating when you are alternately shivering and sweating through night. I had hoped to hit a couple of poker tourneys but given that I could only concentrate for a minute or two before needing a nap, it didn't seem like a good idea.

I did manage to spend a couple of hours on Fremont St. where I hadn't been since all the hubbub started a couple of years ago. Very impressed with all the new stuff, especially the Fremont East area. Very cool that they've found a way to improve without trying to morph into The Strip Lite. If anything it's starting to remind me of Bourbon Street and the French Quarter (or it will with a few more good restaurants) which is very cool. But even though it's all a lot of fun to visit for a night, I'm pretty sure when push comes to shove, I will still bed down on The Strip.

Even a sick boy has to eat. I tried Heritage Steak and was disappointed. On the suggestion of the server I ordered Kobe Skirt with a tabasco-pepper rub, and while the flavor wasn't bad, the rub completely overpowered the meat. On the other hand, the brussel sprouts with bacon and maple syrup were killer. I have now had less than amazing steaks at both Heritage and Gordon Ramsay. The best steak I have ever had in Vegas was the Chateaubriand at Botero.

For burgers, however, I'm down with Gordon Ramsay. I stopped by BurGR for lunch and the Euroburger was as good as it gets. Perfectly cooked. Tasted better than the steak he made me last year.

So, before the Thanksgiving holiday weekend madness I decided to decamp and drag my phlegm infested head to Laughlin, because….well, I'd never been there, and why not? Most people who are used to Vegas will think Laughlin is a dump. It is. But in a different light, it is totally surreal.

First, if you think you have seen folks playing slots in Vegas, you have no idea. The people here don't just play the slots, the drive the machines with a relentless ferocity. There is almost a hostile intensity to the background din of the machines. For these people, slots are not a fling at gaming, they are a calling, an eternal battle. They have grown old, fat, and toothless waging this war and, still, there is no let up. Their only allies are cigarettes and cheap beer. It's a remarkable thing to see. This being the holiday season, the casino had planted carollers on the gambling floor, singing beautiful harmonies to celebrate the birth of Our Lord and Savior, but you couldn't hear them over the din and even if you could I guarantee none of the slot zombie warriors would have broken discipline and looked up. Talk about a thankless job. Surreal.

I stayed at the Aquarius, a building whose infrastructure is a good 70% cigarette smoke. Absolutely everything smells like smoke. I suppose my non-smoking room technically didn't but the phlegm in my head was imbued with it as soon as I checked in -- there was no escape. One thing Laughlin has going for it is the Riverwalk, which backs up to all the riverside casinos. It's not a particularly attractive riverwalk, you get to see the service entrances to many of the casinos and in at least one case you walk by doors that open directly on to people's rooms, but the Riverwalk has air -- relatively fresh air -- and you need that as often as possible.

Now, along the riverwalk there are apparently a number of stray cats. And people will occasionally leave food out for them. That's nice, but the cats have to scarf down as much as possible as quickly as possible because the skunks come out soon after and chase them off. It was a very disconcerting feeling to be walking along the riverwalk in the dark of night and suddenly realize that you are surrounded by skunks. Several less than 10 yards away. During the day families happily recreate all up and down the river, but the night time belongs to the skunks. Fear them. Respect them. Actually, even more disconcerting is realizing that other people are gingerly approaching the skunks trying to get good close ups of the for their phone. Surreal.

Meanwhile across the street at a severely downscale shopping mall there is a Bikini's Sports Bar, where, as you can guess, all the servers are bikini-clad girls. This is as close as it gets to a gentlemen's club in Laughlin, which is not very close. The bikini girls here were not the ones you might see at Treasures. They are not even the ones you might see out in Pahrump. They are the ones you would see in WalMart, if WalMart had that sort of section. That is to say, they were in dire need of a professional overhaul of their fitness routines. Yikes. Surreal.

I honestly can't think of a good reason to visit Laughlin. I'm guessing the payouts must be pretty good or the slot zombie warriors would find another battlefront. A quick survey of the JoB machines around town suggests they generally run 8/5 with a few 9/5s, but my search was not comprehensive. There is no fine dining. There are no must see sights, in fact there are virtually no sites at all. Correction: I can think of one legitimate reason to visit and that would be to see Don Laughlin's classic auto collection. It's free and it's got serious collector cars. If you are into classic autos it's probably worth a visit, but just as a day trip from Vegas. I think place is best left to chain-smoking slot zombies.

Headed back towards Vegas, but keeping with my theme of being on the outskirts, I settled in for a couple of nights at the Hilton in Lake Las Vegas. Now I am sure this is the slowest time of year for the area -- the week after Thanksgiving -- but talk about a post-apocalypse landscape. It's like they built this lovely, manicured, country club setting and it's all a show piece; no one actually uses it. The one casino is shut down. The “village" had a few shops open and a couple of restaurants. Obviously, it picks up during warm weather season for water sports, but I understand why hoteliers are wanting to bug out. There are no customers.

The Hilton is as refined and beautiful a hotel as you can imagine, certainly a match for anything on the Strip except in gaudiness. It used to be called the Ravella, and before that it was a Ritz-Carlton so, yeah, it's high end. In most cities this would be the flagship resort. It's easy to get to, easy to park, easy to walk to whatever activities (if you can find any). Free shuttle to The Strip (MGM). I fail to understand why there isn't more activity out here. If you ever had the notion of staying off-strip and just driving in for the action at night, this strikes me as the place to stay. If you have to bring your kids to Vegas, this is probably the healthiest place for them to stay. It's not that expensive. Certainly not more expensive than, say, Cosmo. And I bet it is rarely booked such that there are spikes in price. For my part, the first night of my stay (Sunday after Thanksgiving) I strongly suspected I was the only one in the hotel. I felt like the Omega Man.

I really hope they make something of Lake Las Vegas. I love the area, and I'm hoping to re-visit in the warm weather to see what's up. As you pull in from Lake Mead Pwky. and look to your left you have a great view of the entire Strip, from Mandalay to Downtown, which is worth it for the photos at sunset.

Oh and it's a short drive to Hoover Dam. I've been coming to Vegas since 2001 and this was my first visit to Hoover Dam. If you don't feel the need to actually walk on the Dam itself, just pull over at the Tillman Plaza and walk along the Memorial Bridge to get your photos. No cost to hit the bridge. A ten-spot to park near at the Dam site. Another tenner if you want to see the visitor's center. Probably about an hour door to door, traffic pending. You needn't give it high priority, but any Vegas regular should probably get there eventually.

Certainly not my best Vegas trip. But not my last either.

Next came part two, starting with a cross country flight to Florida. In Sarasota, a catch up visit with my Mom and younger brother. Sarasota is a great spot, but very hectic in season. As I inch closer to getting a place in Florida, I occasionally waffle to locating there as opposed to points further south -- the Ft. Myers area being my first choice. This whole notion of getting a place is still an embryo. I don't have the exact purpose down -- have ready access to my Mom as she ages, set myself up for retirement, vacation home for the winter, rental property in the mean time -- details have yet to solidify and so I can't really zero in a locale. The ultimate would be Sanibel Island, but that is and will likely forever be out of my price range.

Anyway, by the time the weekend rolled around it was time to decamp again, this time barrelling across the state via Alligator Alley to Ft. Lauderdale to meet Miss Kate. Ft. Lauderdale is not my preferred destination in Florida. In fact, I will take just about anywhere on the Gulf over the Atlantic side. I won't go through the series of reversals of fortune that caused us to end up in Ft. L, but on our only full day we hopped in the car and made a beeline for the Keys.

Then one of the oddest and most infuriating things happened. Heading south on the Florida Turnpike, a toll road, right out of the blue the police shut down the entire freeway. Just made everyone stop dead. Big frustration #1 was that had we been five minutes sooner we would have missed it completely. Frustration #2 came when we realized the stopped traffic dead on the high speed freeway to let a group of what must have been a couple of hundred motorcyclists use the road unimpeded. Near as I could tell these were not public officials or anything of the kind, there were just a huge group of motorcyclists who somehow got the police to reserve a road exclusively for them despite everyone on it having paid for it. I searched the news for references to this event but found nothing. In all it was probably only a twenty minute or so delay but it was truly annoying when we really only had the one day free and, I can't emphasize this enough, we were paying to use that road. And if you thought we were upset, you should have heard the asshat in the BMW SUV next to us laying on his horn, to no good purpose other than to raise the hostility level of everyone around him.

All in all, it took us probably close to two and a half hours to get to Key Largo, when it should have only taken an hour and half-ish. I had hoped for us to do a kayak trip, but the place I wanted to go to could not be found. I located it on the map, used the GPS in my phone, and drove right past exactly where it should have been a couple of times and saw nothing. Grrrr. By this time is was noon so we stopped at the Hilton Key Largo Resort to grab some lunch. And it was so beautiful we decided to just stay there the whole afternoon.

It didn't hurt that Caribbean Watersports was on site, so we got to spend a half hour on a jet ski, before Kate ran it out of gas with her badass hoonage. That was followed up with a parasail along Florida bay, both activities punctuated with Margaritas. The weather was that incredible South Florida winter weather, 80 degrees and a fresh breeze coming off the water. Yeah, this is why folks retire down here.

A nice evening's dinner along Las Olas Blvd. A final morning by the pool. And that was it. It was time to haul myself and my congestion back home, where I was greeted with a leak in the basement and a beeping smoke alarm. Luckily I have perspective. I know that even when things aren't the best, they are still worthwhile. So I won't say it was a bad trip. Too many good things happened. I will say that I can do it better, and I'm sure I will.

Thursday, November 07, 2013

The Month That Was - October 2013

The Month That Was - October 2013: The deck furniture is put away. The grill is covered. The sprinklers have been winterized. I'm wearing long pants and long sleeves for running. And the Dairy Queen has closed for the season. That'll do it for another summer.

This month brought a three-day weekend down in Washington DC. I was doing the 10K associated with the Marine Corps Marathon -- the MCM10K. It was not a pleasant experience. It was an hour wait in line to get my bib number. And another hour to get my shirt. As I lay in bed the night before the race my calves were already in spasm. The race itself was fine, lots of support from Marines along the route, which ran from The Mall to the Marine Corps Memorial at Arlington National Cemetery. But there are so many people that at the end of the race, it's an easy quarter mile before you get to the post-race activities. Even after the finish line they just keep shoveling everyone forward to get them out of the way. There was no hope of finding anyone if you had scheduled a ride. I had to hop the metro back to my hotel, as did everyone else -- there was another 20 minute wait. Never again. I believe there were as many as 25,000 people racing in all the races. I will avoid big races from now on.

Coming soon: a new book. If all goes well I will post about it next month.

[Travel] Rocky Mountain High, High in Alberta
[Science] If the Plane Flies, You're and Idiot
[Rant] For Better or Worse
[Books] Harukiism
[Good Links] Too Stupid not to Laugh

[Travel] Rocky Mountain High, High in Alberta

Rocky Mountain High, High in Alberta: [[photos on smugmug]] Here's the solution: When the U.S. Government shuts down and all the National Parks close and hikers risk trespassing arrest, go North my son. Canada has some astounding parks, very well maintained and supported. I had a terrific experience at Gros Morne when visiting Newfoundland a few years ago. This time it was the other side of the country -- Alberta. In Alberta there are two huge National Parks that sit adjacent to one another: Jasper and Banff.

You start by flying into Calgary, a relatively decent mid-sized airport with folks in red cowboy hats to guide you around. Then you get out of Calgary. Nothing against Calgary, it just isn't all that photogenic or remarkable. It is on the very western edge of the Canadian plains. A fairly non-descript city immediate surrounded by cattle ranches and farming. But by the time you get an hour or so northwest -- hold on to yer hats.

The human mind can get used to anything. I suppose if you live among the Rockies, you don't even notice the postcard-perfect snow-capped peaks in the backdrop of every scene -- almost like someone a painted the background everywhere you look. As for me, over the course of a week I never got jaded looking up from the street and seeing the mountains towering over everything. Clearing customs, we picked up our rental and made our way 6 hours up the Icefields Highway into Jasper.

Here's a big difference between Canadian and U.S. National Parks. In the U.S. you can typically expect to drop $20 or $30/per car for an entrance fee and get anywhere from three nights to a full week access. In Canadian parks expect to spend that much for a single day per person. In fact, for a week long stay, it made more sense to buy an annual pass at round about $150. Yeesh!

There are two paradigmatic views you can see all over in Western Alberta. One is the Alpine lake view. The lakes are all glacier fed which means, apart from being wicked cold, they are shimmering turquoise blue; an explosive color, as if you took and average lake and Photoshopped the color saturation to 11. The water itself is very still; there are no currents and the glorious mountains surrounding them block most of the wind. Until now, the only alpine lake I had ever seen was Tahoe, which is quite beautiful especially in Emerald Bay. But in Banff and Jasper there is a comparable scene around every corner. We pulled off the highway for a quick pit stop and happened upon a view that astounded us, but it was only the smallest taste of what was to come. Yes, the rest stops along the Icefields Highway are comparable to Lake Tahoe.

Jasper is what I would call quaintly-sized. It is a granola-crunchers dream for the most part; outdoorsy, rustic to an extent, vegan choices on all the menus. The dirty secret to towns like this is that while they present themselves as organic havens for genuine trekkers, they are in fact designed to make upper middle class tourists feel like genuine trekkers. That's fine with me. I am certainly upper middle class, although I don't really give a rip about appearing genuine -- I'm a tourist and proud. The point of all that being that while looking like a haven for organic I-don't value-material-wealth types, it is in fact, friggin' expensive. Not Manhattan expensive, but as expensive as any major city in the U.S.

But that's not a big deal, just a bit of a surprise for a quaintly-sized town. Get a hotel near town and you can walk in, enjoying the crisp fall evening and the astoundingly fresh air. There are decent restaurants and shops and, occasionally, enormous elk grazing alongside the road. The high-end resort here is the Fairmont, and while I'm sure it is lovely, it is located across the river so you'll be driving into town. Although parking doesn't appear to be too bad, the convenience and pleasure of walking into town with enormous snowcapped peaks in every direction makes it worth staying close.

You could probably spend a month exploring all the trails and activities in and around Jasper. We confined ourselves to these which, in retrospect, I would highly recommend as an itinerary for a brief stay.

1) Maligne Canyon - A well maintained, partially paved, heavily trodden trail through a rocky canyon and past a handful of waterfalls. This is actually very reminiscent of the canyons around Ithaca, New York. There are a number of bridges along the trail which snake you back and forth across the river, about twenty or thirty feet above the water in most parts. The first waterfall is the most dramatic and also the most crowded. It appears as though the tour busses stop and let folks out just long enough to reach the first bridge or two, if you hike beyond that it gets less crowded. This is a great starter hike in Jasper, just to get the feel of things.

2) Jasper Tramway - I'm tempted to say if there is one activity to do in Jasper it is this one, but that's going too far. You should never go to Jasper as a day trip so the need to pick out "one thing" is out of line. But this is as awesome as it gets. You board a twenty-person tram and ride up the side of Whistler's Mountain to an elevation of about 7500 feet. I'm sure in summer it is much cooler at the top; in fall it's downright cold. In fact they had just had several inches of snowfall the day before. At the top there is a sizeable viewing area, a gift shop, and a diner-level restaurant in the tram station. You are still not at the very top of the mountain, that's a winding 45 minute hike further up, and a bit treacherous in the snow. The view, as you can guess, seems endless. You look down on the entire town of Jasper like a patchwork quilt with a river running through it. You can look down on the clouds, in fact, as you traverse the mountainside behind the station, clouds and fog roll in and out and the station can appear to be perched precariously at the edge of the world surround by nothing but infinite white.

3) Maligne Lake - Have I mentioned that the lakes around this area are glacier-fed. That is to say, they are pooled directly from melting glaciers or from glacier-fed rivers -- not underground springs or other emergences of the water table from below. The glacier water contains extra oxygen (or something) that create lakes that are a brilliant aquamarine color. It's really quite remarkable. A boat tour takes you through the long, but almost canyon-narrow lake, past three active glaciers, to a remote dock with a view of Spirit Island which is claimed to be one of the most photographed places in the world. It begs the question of whether you take the picture because it looks so photographic, or it looks so photographic because you've seen the picture. Either way, it's a hell of a view.

4) Pyramid Lake - You can, if you choose, take a hiking trail directly from Jasper to Pyramid Lake. I don't think it's more than 3 kilometers of so. Pyramid Lake is an easy jaunt. Nothing too dramatic. It's lovely and easily accessible. I suspect it's the center for summer water activities as there is a fine looking resort that reminds me of many of the lake resorts here in Michigan; lots of boat and kayak rentals. It's not really wild or remote; great for a picnic, or a low key visit to finish off your time in Jasper.

On the way back from Pyramid Lake we passed a Chinese man with his young son walking along the road frantically trying to wave us down. Assuming he had a broken down car or other urgency we stopped, only to find that he was just trying to hitch a ride. This was odd since we were really only a mile or so out of town, but he was keen on demonstrating to his son an act which could not happen in China, according to him there was no hitchhiking in the Middle Kingdom. In fact he was travelling across Canada doing whatever he could to demonstrate how different the culture was to the one at home. He had apparently rented a Harley at one point, which was another thing he couldn't do at home. Anyway, a very laudable goal. (Although the panicky waving was not the right protocol for hitching a ride. More of a bait and switch.)

This duo stood in contrast to how one typically encounters folks from the Far East out here. They were on their own, exploring, but tour busses full of Asians are ubiquitous. This is a phenomenon that I have noted before in the western U.S. If anything there was more of it in the Canadian Rockies. I have already mentioned that the place is on the high end expense-wise.
I suppose it is the most economical way to visit and see many things. No car rental. No arrangements to make. Everything gets rolled into one package and you avoid the anxiety of being alone in a strange land. And if fact, it's probably not that different from my travel experiences except that I plan and schedule on my own. (I can drive people crazy by having things planned, at least casually, long ahead of time.) Still, I would miss the occasional unexpected discoveries. Like the Chinese guy waving down a ride. Or the painted version of the infamous and disturbing Mark Messier-Gary Coleman photo hanging over the fireplace at the Jasper Brewpub (yes, it really is). But I wouldn't say no. It's kind of like a cruise on land I suppose. I'm sure there are busloads of Yanks and Canucks rolling around Beijing on any given day.

Jasper had one last treat for us. As we walked back from town in the evening there were two elk grazing on the grass by the side of the road, oblivious to people walking past just a few feet away. No fear. And why not? It's a national park so it's not like they've been hunted by people. In fact, they probably feel safe from the bears if people are around. And no, we never saw bears. Despite the constant admonishments of the locals to make noise on the trails and to steer clear of the larger forms on wildlife, which are "everywhere", we saw nothing except these two lazy elk. Wolves and bear were supposed to abound. One wonders how common encounters are or whether a lot of the drama is just to benefit the tourists.

The next step was a backtrack to Banff. About a three hour drive, but a little over two hours in you can stop at Lake Louise. Lake Louise is interesting. I could go on about how beautiful it is, but you're probably sick of that by now. Still of all the beautiful mountain-framed, glacier-blue lakes in the Canadian Rockies, Lake Louise is going to be at the top of just about everyone's list.

There are a couple of good trails here, including one that ends at a mountain top tea room (!), but we were really just here for lunch. When you pull off the road for Lake Louise you find yourself in Lake Louise Village which is essentially a nice little shopping mall with a visitor's center. From there, to see Lake Louise you have to go the the Fairmont Lake Louise Resort. OK, maybe not have to. I'm sure you can get to edge of Lake Louise other ways, but nobody does that as far as I could tell. The resort and The Lake are a mated pair. If someone ever said I'm going to Lake Louise, you could rightfully assume they were going to the resort. From Lake Louise Village you can either drive on to the resort, or you can hike there along a very pretty, but uphill, path that winds along a picturesque creek. From the trail you emerge at a castle, which turns out to be the resort.

The resort is a stunner. It is the jewel of the Fairmont Properties (a worldwide high-end hotel corporation), and a destination in itself. Banff is about 45 minutes away so you can stay here and make the run in for various activities, but I suspect the bulk of the folks here are happy just to hang in the resort and arrange to join a tour or two. The centerpiece of the resort is the spacious courtyard that abuts the lake. Packed with flowered gardens, and cafe seating (in summer), it has the view of the lake and surrounding mountains. One suspects weddings are almost daily occurrences in spring.

There are four or five restaurants in the Fairmont, but only one was open and there was a wait for a table at about 2pm. Makes no sense, but so little in life does. The food was decent, the view was fabulous, of course. I would consider a stay here if I only had two or three nights, but you are still rather distant from the center of all the activity options. All in all, as attractive as Lake Louise is, I think it works best as a day trip.

Banff was next. Banff is, as everyone told us, a good deal more commercial than Jasper. There are chain restaurants and fine dining options, an arts community, and, presumably, traffic problems and crowds in season -- either summer or ski. There is one lovely main street in town, containing all sorts of shops and restaurants and outfitters, it could be a main street in any similar tourist town, except of course that looking tight down the center draws your eye up to the surrounding mountains. Turning out of town and driving about a mile up a steep road brings you to The RimRock Resort, where we were staying. RimRock is definitely a quality spot. Spa on site, a very good restaurant, and a comfortable pub. Recommended.

One nice thing about RimRock is that it was walking distance to the hot springs and the aerial gondola. While the hot springs looks appealing -- no need to bring anything you can rent suits and towels and a locker on-site, it really does seem like little more than a naturally heated pool. Nice, and inexpensive, but not really a must do. The gondola on the other hand is killer. (By the way, I'm not entirely clear on the difference between a gondola and a tramway. The Gondola was private -- one per party, the tram in Jasper was a public group. Is that the difference?)

You ride the gondola to the top of Sulphur Mountain where you have 360 degree birds-eye views over the town of Banff and all the surrounding area. Tremendous photo ops. Unlike Whistler's Mountain in Jasper where you reach the top and you can wander freely along the trails, here there is an extensive wooden planked pathway that winds around to various viewpoints. Very cool, zero stress activity, but again I would caution you that if you come in season or go much later than when it opens in the morning you will be waiting in line. This is a big tour bus spot. They will dump multiple loads at once and you'll be lined up out the door.

There are terrific hikes around Banff, some only a short ride outside the city. A very popular one is Johnston Canyon -- another glacier-fed river-carved a canyon, with picturesque waterfalls and precarious cliffs. The path is paved and heavily peopled. This one has the advantage of a nice little diner at the trailhead for a quick lunch. Close in town is the Bow River trail, which hugs the eastern side of town and looks out over the river valley and features a view of a couple of minor hoodoos -- odd sights this far north. A brief trip northeast of town gets you to Lake Minnewanka which I gather is the central area for outdoor activities. There are campgrounds and picnic sites and it is nearly as lovely as Lake Maligne up in Jasper. A trail follows the lake around and across the river into a deeply wooded area. Here we encountered a group of hikers who had lost one of their party. They didn't seem overly concerned. Though clearly senior citizens, they had the healthy red-cheeked appearance of veteran hikers, but we backtracked a ways up the mountain then along the river and saw no sign of anyone.

I suspect if you have read this far, you are now bored with the whole 1) hike, 2) marvel, 3) repeat, aspect of this trip. I'll spare you the details of the one last hike, up to the peak of Tunnel Mountain, another one accessed directly from town. The views are...well, you know. This one was a real lung buster though. After that, it was souvenir shopping and a beer at the Banff Brewpub, then off to fight my way through Customs and the Air Travel industry to get home.

The Canadian Rockies can put things in certain perspective. The deep woods in upper Michigan, the mountains of Zion National Park, such experiences can be overwhelming and leave you thinking nothing can compare, but there's always something that can. What will compare to the Canadian Rockies? I don't know, but I'm guessing I'll have to step it up to Alaska to find out.

[Science] If the Plane Flies, You're an Idiot

If the Plane Flies, You're an Idiot: Once again, the nonsense about a plane taking off from a treadmill has popped up around the web. Very few things can rustle my jimmies more than this. Let's go over it one last time.

For a plane to take off it needs a massive rush of wind from the front, a headwind. A plane's wings are designed so the wind from the front will push harder on the bottom of the wings than the top. This is what causes the plane to leave the ground. (Technically, it is coriolis force creating lift.) That's why they build those long, expensive runways for a plane to go barreling down at insane speeds before taking off. It's not just because it's cool. You need to create enough headwind pressure to lift the plane off the ground.

Now, some clown comes along and glibly asks "If you put a plane on a treadmill, would it take off?" The answer is obviously no. On a treadmill, like the ones you see at the gym, you exert energy to move your legs but you do not move forward relative to the air around you. In other words, you never generate a headwind on a treadmill. So, by extension, if you put a plane on such a treadmill, it would not move forward, no headwind would be generated, and it would not take off. Ipso facto.

But then clown smugly "proves" you wrong. He says, yes it could because there is no treadmill a plane couldn't overpower and you couldn't build such a treadmill and Mythbusters proved it...blah, blah, blah.

Really? Really?

So when you said "plane on a treadmill," we weren't supposed to imagine a treadmill like we are all familiar with, the kind we use in the gym. Apparently, we were supposed to imagine a treadmill that wasn't strong and efficient enough to hold a plane steady. We were supposed to imagine a treadmill that a plane would just blast right over. We were supposed to picture a 747 placed on top of a $500 treadmill you can buy at Sears.

Well, then I suppose you're right. If the question has become, "If you put a plane on a treadmill that is not capable of stopping it from taking off, could it take off?" then the answer is yes. Yes, it could.

Also, you're an idiot.

[Rant] For Better or Worse

For Better or Worse: I find myself wondering whether to be optimistic or pessimistic about the future of civilization. Pessimism is my frequent reaction, but I know that is mostly the result of frustrations and disappointments that have little to do with anything systemic. I also know that the accuracy of every memory I carry is suspect just by nature of my humanity, and so when trying to determine trends over the course of my life, I'm really not even sure what the starting point was like, never mind whether the direction is forward or back.

If I try to strictly adhere to rationality, I can say only with certainty the science and technology -- especially as it relates to health and information, which affect us very directly -- has undeniably made our lives better. And although it seems that technology may be encountering some diminishing returns, health and biological sciences feel like they are just getting warmed up. To this day, well past fifteen years since I had lasik, I am astounded at having my vision restored so simply and easily. Twenty years ago my gall bladder decided to pack it in. Had I been born one lifetime earlier I would have died. Had I been born a mere decade earlier I would have had my gut sliced open and been laid up for six weeks in recovery. As it was, I had outpatient surgery and was back to work in a couple of days. I expect this sort of thing to continue and be a source of betterment going well past my lifetime, until a new dark age hits.

But there's also the other side of the question. Is there actually social progress? Of this I am much less sure. One can point to all sorts of successful, progressive social movements, but the more I see the more I wonder whether much of this isn't just a change in form and appearance, while that the underlying state has changed little. I have a number of reasons for thinking this. One is that I now see how earlier times, times of my childhood or youth, are portrayed and I see the unfounded derision with which they are treated by popular culture. This leads to the natural extension: if popular culture can misrepresent times that I know to have been different, isn't it probable that it has misrepresented other times as well, including the ones that I have always believed were less socially advanced than my own? Another thing that gives me pause is are the mind-blowing ideas presented at Overcoming Bias, among other places, that show how deep and ubiquitous -- perhaps even primal -- is the human need for hypocrisy and self-delusion. As a result, anything I encounter that is a source of pride causes me immediate suspicion, and modern culture at large is certainly proud of what it sees as social progress. More and more, what is referred to as social progress look like trade-offs and changes in fashion that are passed off as objective advances. What was bad becomes good and we applaud ourselves for our right-mindedness when quite probably, a) it may have been the way it was for a reason and/or b) the change was superficial -- we adopted the form of a new idea but the underlying situation is still there. In either case, we get to delude ourselves that we are awesome.

Certainly, there has been a reduction is crime (in the U.S. anyway) by very broad based measures, although for some reason we feel less safe than ever. Nuclear annihilation is becoming (perhaps wrongly) an afterthought -- I have friends who were very seriously bothered by this as children, to the point of lying awake in fear -- but now we have Muslim terrorists. Still, on the whole, I certainly can't see security as a minus -- let's call it a tentative, cautious plus. This opens the door to whether there is too much security, and my head starts to ache.

The other potential plus is in the sense of empathy. Every once in a while you'll read something about how people seem to be gaining a stronger sense of empathy toward others. It manifests itself in much more considerate decision making -- less my-way-or-the-highway authoritarianism in social interaction. This jibes with my experience -- my potentially biased and deluded experience. Still, as careful as I am trying to be about being rationally accurate, this sticks out to me as something real. I'll give this a plus too.

Of course, there is some truth to the common reasons given for why the world is going to hell. I do believe there is a stronger sense of entitlement than in the past, although, again the change is smaller than your standard journalistic bombast would have you believe. My armchair speculation is that this is by-product of the world becoming less personal and more political. My sense is that in the past we were much more inclined to sort things out interpersonally or within a community. Now we immediately look for a legal and regulatory solution to any disagreement. But again, this is my prejudice speaking. Can I say for certain that this is a "downside" or is it just different?

Another typical reason for complaints about societal degradation is is the increasing crudity of popular culture -- music, drama, style, and manners in general have coarsened severely over the years. This has been going on for decades and is tough to deny. But still, though ugly, is it really a measurable degradation of life or just a change is fashion.

If I had to answer the question, "Have things gotten better or worse in my lifetime?" I would answer: mildly yes. But for every bit of advance much has been lost. So much, that I wouldn't take pride in any progress or be certain of its continuance.

[Books] Harukiism

Harukiism: One of my favorite authors, Haruki Murakami, is poised to have a new work hit the stands, by which I mean be downloadable for kindle, in the near future. Colorless Tazaki Tsukuru and His Years of Pilgrimage has been out in Japan for a year or so and the translation should be available sometime next year. This review is glowing.

Haruki-san is one the few, if not the last, mainstream novelist whose books are a cultural event in any sense. They sell millions right out of the blocks. I'll be snagging it from Amazon the first day it is released.

In the mean time, here's a little short work that recently appeared in the New Yorker. Probably only good if you are familiar with Kafka's Metamorphosis.

Here are my quick reviews of 1Q84, Kafka on the Shore, What I Talk About When I Talk About Running, and The Elephant Vanishes, and a very old review of Wild Sheep Chase and Dance, Dance, Dance that I wrote for Slashdot oh so long ago. And I've read more than that.

[Good Links] Too Stupid not to Laugh

Too Stupid not to Laugh: Increasingly I find myself amused by things that would amuse an eight-year-old. An unexpected pratfall, for instance. Well here's something that absolutely slayed me: a twitter-bot designed to ruthlessly troll. @StealthMountain is a twitter bot that seeks out the phrase "sneak peak" on twitter and replies I think you mean "sneak peek". Most people would probably shake it off, but the most illiterate of the bunch reply with a stream of misspelled and vicious profanities. The best of them are here. The barely literate are sure defensive about it. There are pages and pages of it. It's the stupidest thing in the world and it completely cracks me up.

Thursday, October 10, 2013

The Month That Was - September 2013

The Month That Was - September 2013: That makes 53 times around the Sun. Yes, it can get a bit tedious now and then, but it's still preferable to any alternative that I know of.

Honestly I find myself more annoyed than anything else. The petty annoyances of life have really begun to bother me. Perhaps that is how my mid-life crisis is manifesting. Example, my Camry (180,000+) has developed a sort of howling noise that comes on between 40 and 50 mph. Faster or slower and it's fine. My first thought was wheel bearing but the mechanic said the wheel bearings are fine and I need to get new tires because of uneven wear (the tires can't have much over 10,000 miles). That didn't sound right to me so I figured I would test it by rotating the spare on to different wheels. If I noticed a difference then that would verify it was the tires. I noticed no difference. So now I am trying to figure out what to do.

The overall solution is to buy a new car, which isn't an extravagance when your car is pushing 200K. But there are very few repairs that aren't a good deal cheaper than buying a new car, or even a lightly used one. And buying a car is such a bloody hassle. So I would happily spend a healthy amount of repairs if ANYONE COULD FIGURE OUT WHAT'S WRONG.

I have a couple of similar hassles going now and for whatever reason they are annoying me much more than they should be, much more than usual. Maybe I just feel like after all these years I should get a break on this stuff. I mean, can nothing ever run smoothly?

That would amount to little more than whining, though. How pathetic to have a mid-life crisis that amounts to nothing more than going off on a whinge. Why not expensive cars and cheap women like everyone else? Lame. Oh well, to quote Big Bang Theory, "Maybe this is just the kick in the pants I need to start taking Zoloft."

But then who needs Zoloft? As I write this I am in the Canadian Rockies, a trip you'll hear about next month. It's also why I'm so late and thin on content this month.

[Books] Book Look: Life
[Books] Book Look: Freaky Deaky
[TV] Bad Guys Lose, or Not

[Books] Book Look: Life, by Keith Richards

Book Look: Life, By Keith Richards: Keith Richards wrote a book (the mind reels!) of his life, about which he claims to remember it all (whoa, dude, seriously!). Although it is not as surprising as you might think. Time flies. It's been well over thirty years since Keefer was on smack. Imagine that: There are young couples raising children in suburbia who have never known a world in which Keith Richards was a junky in the headlines.

Keith has always had a way with words. He wrote most of The Stones iconic songs, after all. Life, to his credit, and that of his co-writer, reads exactly like Keith talking: a sort of awkwardly elegant ramble that makes you smile even at its most annoying. If you've never seen an interview with Keith, just read it in your head as Johnny Depp's voice from the Pirates movies.

If there is an overriding concept in Life it's how deeply it reflects Keith's version of the facts and the world in general. There is no hiding it and no pretense of objectivity, no self-questioning. In that sense it is an extraordinarily honest look into Keith's brain. Case in point is the introduction.

Dressed like a queen, in a flashy car that is packed with with an entire pharmacy's worth of drugs, hammered out of his mind no doubt, he and a couple of his friends are driving through the South on their way to a gig sometime in the 1970s. After some restroom drug shenanigans, they find themselves pulled over and arrested. We discover, however, that this is not the result of some bad decisions on their part. It is the fault of Richard Nixon and Southern redneck cops. There are some tense moments before they get out of it using expensive lawyers and their own fame.

Really, it's a remarkable vignette. Placing it in the introduction is brilliant because it tells you upfront what you are dealing with: The World According to Keef. It is, after all, an autobiography. But it is wonderfully clear that Keith's take on things is so deeply non-objective. Keith is the master of don't-judge-me-I-am-what-I-am excuses. When contemplating the notion of a jury of his peers, he claims to have no peers, except possibly Jimmy Page. He is unique, truly special. Late three hours for a show? Well, you'll just be happy that he gets there. It's not his fault anyway, it's rock and roll. Disagree with him in the recording studio? Well, you deserve to have a knife pulled on you. You don't mess with the Keefer.

Keith lived (lives) his life like a true rebel, a dangerous man on the edge. A pirate in the world. A self-destructive bluesman who answered to no one but his rock and roll ways. He's a man who holds grit and devilry close to his heart. Even when he's not being naughty, a lot of bad stuff just sort of "happens" to Keith, such as his penchant for finding buildings to inhabit that subsequently burn down through "faulty wiring." At least he doesn't blame Nixon for that.

Of course, the dirty secret is that he never had to pay for it. Any average person who lived his life would have be locked up for long stretch, first having destroyed and/or impoverished all the people he loved. Keith, in contrast, ends up with a loving family, an entourage of handlers, a compound in Connecticut and a regular vacations at exclusive Parrot Cay in Turks and Caicos where his celebrity neighbors drop by for tea. How hard is it to be a rogue badass when there no consequences except being on the outs with Mick Jagger? (Read this brilliant, imagined response from Jagger to Life, by journalist -- not bassist --Bill Wyman.)

So should you read Life, this monument to self-delusion and aggrandizement? Absolutely. It's entertaining as hell in a gossipy sort of way. And Keith is not without his good side. His passion and understanding of music stands out, as does his ability to reciprocate loyalty. Despite all the infantile nonsense and skull-ring posing he does, it would still be pretty cool to be buds with the guy and his mad cronies. Just don't get sucked into thinking you could behave like him. You're not rich or famous enough, and he might just give you knife for your presumption.

[Books] Book Look: Freaky Deaky, by Elmore Leonard

Book Look: Freaky Deaky, by Elmore Leonard: There is probably nothing left original to say about the late Elmore Leonard. Actually that's not true. If you say he sucked, then you would be completely original.

A bit surprisingly, this was my first Leonard book ever. Still, I knew exactly what to expect, from the locomotive pace to the somewhat cliched characters, all of whom are on the make and never at a loss for sharp words.

I chose Freaky Deaky because it is set in and around Southeast Michigan. The bulk of it happens in Detroit, but there are references to locales out in the suburbs and as far as Ann Arbor. But I suspect I could have chosen any Elmore Leonard and gotten pretty much the same thing.

The case involves a bombing as part of a blackmail scheme hatched by a pair of former '60s rebels. Their chosen victim is the guy who ratted on them long ago and got them locked up, so it's about revenge. Except the victim is now enormously wealthy and it's really the money they are after. In fact, the veneer of justified revenge is so thin, they can't help but admit they clearly zeroed in on the easy money. They even joke about how their noble protests of years ago weren't really about anything but making trouble for trouble's sake. The problem is that their target is protected by a former Black Panther, who also doubles as chauffeur and nursemaid, who has crossed paths with them before and has his own designs on the target's fortune. Into this mix comes a burned out cop who gets involved in the situation and gets suspended for it so his last chance is to catch the crooks to save his career.

Crosses and double-crosses ensue. Truths and half-truths, omissions and lies, keep all the characters spinning. And of course the brilliance of Leonard the finish, where everything resolves and this flawless gordian knot untangles.

I think for a while, Leonard will be my go-to for escapist stories. A position previously held by by a long line of mystery writers from Qiu Xiaolong (Chief Inspector Chen) back to John MacDonald (Travis McGee). Although still a genre writer, Leonard seems to be a cut above the rest. He gets pantheon-level marks for tone and atmosphere. Should you read Freaky Deaky? Unqualified Yup. To quote George Will: "Here's what you do, read the first chapter of Freaky Deaky. It won't take long, about ten minutes. Don't worry, the store owner won't mind, because you will then buy the book." Again, Yup.

[TV] The Bad Guys Lose, or Not

The Bad Guys Lose, or Not: [[There are spoilers in this post regarding the ending of Breaking Bad and Dexter.]] Two master criminals retired from the TV screen inviting summary reflections and comparisons: Dexter Morgan of Dexter, and Walter White of Breaking Bad. Comparison mostly came about because the final season happened to be airing on the same night at the same time. There is little else they shared, including quality.

Dexter, as a series, was not worth it. It had two ripping good seasons, followed by six seasons a general suckitude. It's not hard to identify the problems: too much time spent on uninteresting ancillary characters who were discarded like used tissues; thoroughly unrealistic plot points, beyond the ability to suspend disbelief; comically bad dialogue and cliched tropes; the list goes on. You would think that having a psychopath as a lead character would have been a problem, too, but not really. If your lead is incapable of experiencing emotion how do you get a character arc? The answer to that was clever (and missed by most people). Dexter's arc was to slowly build up personal relationships through acting like he was normal, through mimicking the actions and rituals of others. In time he would come to find that it did him no good. He just destroyed everyone and everything around him.

It's not a bad concept...for a full length feature film. Maybe even a trilogy of films or a single season of TV. But eight seasons -- no. You end up with exactly what you got: massive storylines and even entire seasons that were essentially throwaways -- no reason for existing and then abandoned thoughtlessly. There were long stretches where the only validity to the show was the exceptional acting of Michael C. Hall and Jennifer Carpenter. In the end, Dexter becomes a lumberjack and I'm left to wonder why I wasted so many hours keeping up on it.

One hundred and eighty degrees opposite is Breaking Bad. A paragon of focus and character development. There is little I need to say about it that hasn't been said in every corner of the Internet. To find fault is to be a supreme nitpicker. With Breaking Bad you waste no time in the evaluation of quality, you jump right to the questions of meaning.

The question at the end was one of justice: Did Walter get his just desserts? Most people would look at him, deem him evil, see that he died in the end and feel that justice had been served. Wrong. Walter got away with it. Remember: he was a walking dead man from cancer anyway. And he got to live and be king for his remaining time on Earth. Walter won. I can't imagine how people are interpreting it otherwise.

Jesse broke even. He was a low life, burnt out drug user to start and he looks to be destined to live a marginal life from now on, although he may be grateful for it after what he's been through. Walter Jr. and Holly won -- although they don't know it yet. The money left for them will cushion them immensely and start them on the right path. Walt Jr. will continue to hate his father but live with it, and Holly won't give him a thought, but my guess is that Walter, like any good parent, would willingly sacrifice the love and admiration of his children to provide for their success.

His wife and in-laws lost, and lost big. Remember how natural it was for them to assume Walt had no options but to beg friends for help with his cancer treatment? It was just Walt right? How could he possibly handle anything? I'm told there is an added scene in the DVD release that emphasizes the dismissive, thoughtless contempt in which he was held by Skyler. To them, and because of them, to himself, Walt was not even a living creature. He was barely worth a thought.

Now Hank is dead. Marie is widowed. And Skyler...well this is best of all. Hank and Marie were complicit in subordinating Walt and treating him like a nonentity, but Skyler made him that way. Walt may have had evil in him, but without Skyler holding him to be such a helpless eunuch it would never have seen the light of day. Now it's Skyler who's the basket case. She has to live with her complicity and her own sins. Let's not forget what she did to her former boss, not to mention how she readily joined Walt when the volume of money was mentioned. Is she going to tell her kids she did it for them or will she just maintain a lie, forever, to maintain a reason to continue? She is compromised to the point where she is can pretty much have no life. I must say Anna Gunn nailed the soul-crushing wife role and followed it with the guilt and anger role even stronger. Without her, the series would have been severely diminished.

So if you've deemed Walt evil, the injustice is complete. It was a total victory for Heisenberg.

I am looking forward to the time in a couple of years when Breaking Bad is no longer fresh in my mind, so I can binge watch the whole thing all over again. I doubt I'll ever watch Dexter again.

Sunday, September 08, 2013

The Month That Was - August 2013

The Month That Was - August 2013: Wowie zowie. Already at summer's end. I'm sitting here trying to sum up the month of August and I can't really remember what happened. I read a nice book (below); had a long weekend in Chicago (below); beyond that, uh, work was hellacious, let’s see...oh, I am very close to getting my next book up for Kindle. I need to write and introduction and then it will be ready. I’ll post more here, but don’t get your hopes up; it’s very esoteric. Not anything like what I’ve written before. It’s not even original, really. With luck next month I’ll fill you in.

[TV] Summer Toobage
[TV] Applied Schtick
[Travel] Still My Kinda Town
[Books] Book Look: Radio Shangri-La

[TV] Summer Toobage

Summer Toobage: At the moment any discussion of TV has to start and end with Breaking Bad. The final season has been a tour-de-force. I think everyone who enjoyed the show had this fear in the back of their mind that it might end suckily -- like the The Wire. Nope. I thought it would end sharply but uninspiringly. I assumed that since the elevating underlying tension -- whether it is better to be harmless and forgettable or harmful and remembered -- had been resolved it would be pretty a standard closure-fest. Walt was already deemed evil in the narrative. Case closed. From there, I reasoned it was just a matter of concluding the character arc either with comeuppance or injustice. I had no doubt it would be done with great skill, but the big question was already answered.

Well I just completely underestimated how much skill was going to be brought to bear. No attempt was made to re-ignite the possibility of Walt’s redemption. Each scene seems to push him further and further from sympathy. He’s reached the point where every word out of his mouth is suspect. He claims his cancer has returned, but is that just a ploy for sympathy? He wants his brother-in-law to back off for the sake of the kids, but is that just an angle to buy time? His wife is backed into a corner because of her own secrets. His last act of guilt -- his generosity toward Hank’s injury -- is now sullied when he turns it to his advantage. Jesse, symbolically the first person he manipulated, seems to see through him finally. Every act is calculated to assure his continued survival while maintaining the plausibility of his nobility. He has become, in short, a textbook sociopath. There’s the new conflict: How do you deal with someone who simply can't be believed when he is inescapably entwined with your life and those that you love?

Again, there is no moral resolution left here (unless Gilligan has some sort of monster sized rabbit in his hat), but the rivet factor is through the roof. All down the line -- writing, direction, acting -- everything is getting nailed cold. I’ll hate to see it all end, but I’m already looking forward to binge rewatching the entire series on NetFlix in a year or so.

Other things I’ve been watching on my summer vacation:
  • The Bridge -- from FX, which is probably the best network right now. Based in El Paso/Juarez -- a cross-border/cross-culture hunt for a serial killer. Lots of twists and turns. Interesting, if somewhat unlikely, characters. Needs to be careful not to get a) too tied up in the procedural or b) too tied up in cultural observations about the border. So far it’s done pretty well. Another quality drama that appears to have no larger goal. We’ll see. It has tremendous potential for someone with the right vision, but smart money is always against that. This is worth watching, which is more than you can say for most of these shows.
  • Wilfred -- FX again. Occasionally inspired, occasionally stupid, occasionally disgusting, almost always good for a laugh. The heartwarming story of a suicidal loser and his id manifestation in the form a dog, or rather an Australian guy dressed in a dog costume. Often at it’s funniest when parodying real dog behavior. Wilfred has won me over, although it is now four seasons on and getting to the point where an end game needs to kick in. Still, after watching this, you can never see Lord of the Rings again without picturing Mr. Frodo slumped on a couch next to a guy in a dog suit, doing bong hits until catatonic. A fun and weird curiosity. Farce and comedy aside, there is actually a continuing Lost-like mystery going on about the nature of Wilfred. If you want to take it up, I suggest starting at the beginning.
  • Dexter -- I find I watch this mostly out of habit now. It’s not very good. It hasn't been since season 2. Normally if I keep watching in those circumstances it’s because I feel invested in the characters, but don't really give a rip about any of the characters on this show. Inertia is a powerful thing in the face of some terrible summer TV. This show can be thought of as an ill-conceived version of Breaking Bad: man does terrible things for what might be the greater good and, at least for a while, gets away with it. Unfortunately, since the man in this case is a psychopath there is no question of remorse and/or redemption when things go bad. In these later seasons, the writers have had to imbue Dexter with some emotion to try to get him a character arc beyond the next bad guy he needs to carve up. They’ve failed. What’s left is occasional dollops of lurid entertainment and...inertia.
  • Magic City -- Gone, and soon to be forgotten. Magic City was a middling crime drama/period piece that was originally marketed as Mad Men meets the Sopranos. It couldn't hold a candle to either of those shows, but it was not without certain charms. Though most of the storylines were misguided and meh, the main plot -- a good son, a bad son, and a man whose ambition will cause the loss of both -- had at least a little potential. But really, it was not a show I could recommend to anyone. It inspired no passion, although it was on an upswing and may have hit its stride if given another season. The unlikely, but possible, upside would have been something along the lines of Boardwalk Empire: a high end 2nd tier drama. Starz could do worse and they probably will.
  • Burn Notice -- Was there ever a time when this show was fun and hip, or is my memory failing? Another show that had a good couple of seasons then fell off a cliff. A clever little caper show that decided it needed to have STAKES. I keep DVRing it to see if they find any of the fun and glamour from the early episodes but they never do and I end up FF’ding through the entire show in fifteen minutes. It’s ending about three seasons too late and there will be no redemption no matter how it ends. Luckily only a couple of episodes left and I get an extra fifteen minutes in my week.
  • True Blood -- Yet another one that is lost. HBO has in its pocket the best of so many story genres it’s not even funny. Mob (Sopranos), Western (Deadwood), Cop/Crime (The Wire, although I may have to displace this with Breaking Bad) -- in the entire history of the movies nothing outshines these. Early on in True Blood there was the potential for them to take the Vampire crown also, but that still sits with Buffy. What True Blood was back then was the best Roger Corman sexploitation film ever made, but it has even sacrificed that title to American Horror Story, or it would if AHS was on premium cable and could get R rated. With each successive season it has gotten increasingly shallow, absurd, and non sequitur. As if the the writer’s room consisted of a bunch of giggling adolescents crying, “wouldn’t it be cool if…,” lobbing the idea against a whiteboard, then randomly assigning them to scripts. I’m sure it has been renewed but it needs to die now.
Man has summer TV been epically sucktastic. Glad that’s over. I’m looking forward to decent viewing coming back -- Justified, Game of Thrones, Boardwalk Empire, Archer, Psych, probably some other stuff I am forgetting. Good stuff, but not great. Of course next year also sees the last of Mad Men and the end of TVs heroic age.

Still there are points of hope. Milch has new pilot coming -- the Money -- which is self-recommending and may even last longer than one season. At least it won’t be like everything else on TV. Also potentially original is a new show called Masters of Sex about early research into sex which judging from the promos, could be something that is new and different -- or it could be an excuse for lurid shock. It’ll be nice to see dramas that don't revolve around crime or historical/fantasy fiction.

Although I am looking forward to some new stuff, I can’t help but feel we’ve peaked, and more and more I will be rewatching the greats rather than watching new stuff. The bright side is that reality TV is drifting away from front and center. Still, peak TV may have passed.

[TV] Applied Schtick

Applied Schtick: Two TV comedy maestros brought their sit-com shtick to something more long form. The results were mixed. Ted from Family Guy’s Seth McFarlane and starring Mark Wahlberg, who I increasingly like, and Mila Kunis gets an “A”. It’s a stupid rom-com candy coating wrapped around what is transparently just Family Guy material. Even the voice of Ted, the intelligent and foul-minded teddy bear, is Seth McFarlane’s Peter Griffin voice. I’m mean exactly that voice. He didn't even try to come up with a different one. But it’s top notch Family Guy material, which means it’s funny as all hell. Worth a free viewing, and maybe even a rental.

Clean History is Larry David’s project and it is essentially a long form version of a Curb Your Enthusiasm episode. The gimmick here is that Larry managed to get himself dumped by a company that went on to tremendous success effectively losing out on a billion dollar payoff. Now living a much smaller life incognito on the other side of the country his past catches up with him and he decides to take revenge on it. The setting in Nantucket but it might was well be the L.A. of Curb…. Same characters, and in some cases same actors. Larry David plays Larry David. At it’s best Curb… can be very funny, but this is not Curb… at its best. When Curb… is not at it’s best it barely funny at all. Remember: it’s a show about George Castanza, with Jerry, Kramer, and Elaine removed. Its only going to score big about a third of the time at most, and Clear History isn’t one of those times. It’s not bad. I’ll give it a B/B-. But not worth going out of your way to watch.

[Travel] Still My Kinda Town

Still My Kinda Town: It had been a couple of years since I visited Chicago, which is far too long as it is about as perfect as imaginable a long weekend destination. I had first planned to drive in, but parking is always a hassle and my car is getting to be old and oil thirsty, so I took Amtrak. The Ann Arbor train station is 15 minutes away and since I am now old and spoiled enough to pay for business class, the 5 hour (with delays) trip is pretty much hassle free (provided the train doesn't break down, which has been known to happen).

Not only is the train vastly cheaper than flying, it’s just about as fast. Figure two hours of transport and contingency padding pre-flight, an hour and a half flight, another hour of getting in from O’Hare -- you’re over four hours right there. So flying may be faster but not by much. Meanwhile on the train there’s no security line, you can get up at will, you have about three times as much legroom, power outlets and free wi-fi (it even works sometimes) at your seat, and you can whip out your phone or other devices whenever you want (just don’t be an ass about it). A cab from Union Station is about a quarter of the price of a cab from O’Hare or Midway. Union Station itself is a bit of a Charlie Foxtrot, but not one the level of a big airport. All in all, it’s a brain-free decision.

The Chicago 10k was happening on Sunday morning so I arrived Saturday afternoon with the intention of staying off my feet but my room was in Streeterville (the area near Navy Pier) and the packet pickup for the run was up in Old Town, right next to Second City, a couple of neighborhoods north. I was so excited to be in Chicago again that I fooled myself into thinking the walk would be nothing. It’s really not so much -- a little over a couple of miles -- four miles round trip, rather a lot for pre-race wear and tear on the feet. Then I completely underestimated the distance from my hotel to the far end of Grant Park where the start of the race was -- another two miles. So ended up walking 10K (6.2 miles) just to get in position to run the 10K. My feet were killing me the whole race and my time was disappointing. Still, there are worse ways to spend a Sunday morning than running along the lakeshore.

The only thing left to do was nap. So after the race I walked over to Millenium Park, made a quick, obligatory visit to the Bean and the Crown Fountain, I settled on the lawn in front of the Pritzker Pavillion for some shut eye in the cool shade. How perfect is that?

Somewhat recharged, I paid a visit to the Art Institute. They had a Impressionism and Fashion exhibit going on that didn’t really interest me and the main sculpture garden was down for renovations, so it was a little disappointing, but there is so much tremendous stuff on display there that I could still wander for for a couple of hours, or at least until my feet gave out again.

Come evening I engaged in what was probably the single most touristy activity imaginable. Not only did I go to Navy Pier (self-described as the busiest tourist destination in the Midwest), I went to the Margaritaville on Navy Pier and had a margarita. All that was missing was and old time photo and a souvenir snow globe.

The next day (Monday) was dedicated to my traditional Chicago activity -- rent a bike and pedal north to Wrigleyville. This is an activity I highly recommend to anyone who will listen. You can rent a bike at Navy Pier of Millenium Park (there may be other places). If you are heading north I suggest Navy Pier, for points south, which would be the museum campus, Millenium Park works better (be careful to walk your bike until you get out of the park or you’ll get yelled at). Either way, once you have your bike you have miles and miles of a paved pedestrian/cyclist/rollerblade path running along Lake Michigan that is a joy to ride. North from Navy Pier you will ride past broad beaches full of folks swimming and playing volleyball and just laying about. You could be in Miami Beach by the look of it.

At any point you can turn left and head back toward the city attractions. First up is Lincoln Park, a vernal space with a zoo and gardens, also to home to Depaul University and Chicago Pizza Kitchen and Oven Grinder (where the locals go for pizza pie; they tend to pass on the famous name deep dish joints). Next up is the turnoff onto Addison towards Wrigleyville.

Wrigleyville is the neighborhood around Wrigley Field where the Cubs play. It’s loaded down with bars and souvenir shops with some quirky boutiquey kinda stuff mixed in, mostly running along Clark St. When the Cubs are playing it gets fun. When the Cubs are playing the White Sox, or there is some other special aspect to the game such as it coincides with a Northwestern football game, it gets downright Bourbon Street-like. At 11 AM on Monday when the Cubs aren't playing until the evening it’s pretty quiet, which was fine with me. I snagged a quick lunch at Vines on Clark, one of the places that does a little better than standard bar food, then trotted across the street for a tour of Wrigley Field.

If you are not a baseball fan, let’s just note that Wrigley Field is an old, old, old, traditional park. It is loaded down with stories and history of the sort that baseball nerds drool over. The tour covers all that history as you walk throughout the park from the bleachers to the press box, eventually ending right down on the field. It’s very nicely done and the guides are professional and knowledgeable. Like all ballparks, Wrigley has that cathedral like quality when empty -- the beautiful green shadings and amphitheatrical shape. There is comparatively little advertising since it was designed long before things such as corporate sponsorship were a gleam in anyone’s eye. I have to say, though, that when it comes to actually watching a game, Wrigley just can’t measure up to modern parks for comfort and convenience. Concession choices are limited and you get your fair share of obstructed view seats.

Note: If I was King of Wrigley Field I would find a way to completely demolish and re-do the upper deck. There has to be a way to have an upper deck without the dropping huge support poles in front of lower deck fans. Plus, with a new upper deck you could build in some of the posh seating and services that generate so much revenue. And you could do all this without altering the traditional character or interfering with the surrounding neighborhood.

Still, there is tremendous value to Wrigley Field, and Wrigleyville is part of that. There is virtually no parking anywhere around the stadium, the environment is part of the city, not a bubble for folks from the suburbs to haul in for the game, get slotted into a parking space, then crawl through the traffic jam out on the way home right after. If you want to see the Tigers you go to Comerica Park then leave, if you want to see the Cubs you go to the city where Wrigley Field is. Does that make sense?

The lakeshore bike path continues north a way further up to Edgewater Beach. I expect it’s an easy street ride beyond that to Loyola University and Northwestern University. Chicago, in many ways, resembles a giant college town. Sadly, threatening skies put the kibosh on any further exploration. I got back to Millenium Park just as the rain was starting in earnest. The evening would be indoor time. Dinner was a small grilled veggie pizza at Gino’s East, of which I ate about half. I used to work at Pizzeria Uno’s so I’m familiar with Chicago Style Deep Dish, but I have to say that the famous names in Deep Dish -- Uno’s, Gino’s, Giardano’s, Lou’s -- all taste pretty much the same to me. It’s all tasty stuff -- I love the sweet chunky tomato sauce most of all -- but undifferentiated.

The next morning was checkout time, but I had scheduled a late train back, so I had a final few hours to enjoy the city. A walk up Michigan Ave, past all the high end stores, to the Gold Coast area where the ultra-hip shops and restaurants are. I happened on a little place called Da Lobsta where they claimed to do a genuine Maine-style Lobster Roll, and they do, it was very tasty and trad -- made me miss Maine. From there further north to the Lincoln Park Zoo and spent some leisurely time checking out the beasties.

On the way back to get my gear I did something silly. I stopped at Portillo’s for an Italian Beef. Chicago is best known for Deep Dish and the famous Chicago Style hot dogs. Less well known but still iconic is the Italian Beef sandwich. It’s simple: seasoned roast beef left to marinate in it’s own spiced juices, topped with a small touch of sweet Italian peppers. It is serve on a chewy hoagie roll and -- this is key -- au jus, messy au jus. It’s fabulous when done right, a Portillo’s does an excellent job. Not a thing you want to eat everyday, but I figured between running and biking and walking I had probably covered forty miles over the previous 2 days. Plus, I didn't want to be hungry on the train ride back. So I indulged.

And I wasn’t hungry on the ride back. I felt like a bloated pig on the ride back. And the bulk of the following day. But that’s alright. I get to Chicago a couple of days a year if I’m lucky. I’ll gladly indulge in whatever it offers.

[Books] Book Look: Radio Shangri-La, by Lisa Napoli

Book Look: Radio Shangri-La, by Lisa Napoli: The bulk of the interest in this book comes from the author’s adventures managing an independent radio station in the tiny Himalayan nation of Bhutan. Let's take a moment to talk about Bhutan.

Since time immemorial Bhutan was isolated geographically. It became something of a Buddhist fundamentalist monarchy. Even when interaction was possible, it was held at bay in an effort to keep the people on the proper holy path. This was possible not just because of its geographic isolation but also because there was little value strategically or in natural resources. A traveller might wander in, admire the views, then move on without a reason to staying in contact. However, the world cannot be kept at bay forever.

In an attempt to not lose itself in the global cyclone of popular progressive culture, Bhutan has taken to monitoring, limiting, and controlling much of its connections to the outside world. What is permitted as far as contact and behavior is determined by the government in accord with something they refer to as Gross National Happiness. In other words, instead of allowing collective individual and economic forces shape their country, they will assess the value of any technology or cultural development that appears with respect to its effect on the Happiness of the nation and then decide whether to allow, forbid, or modify and control it.

It is a naively appealing idea, also vaguely utopian, and we know where that can lead. In some ways it draws comparison to the Amish, who do similar evaluations with respect to the possibility of things encouraging pridefulness. It also brings to mind the appeal of what might be called the nanny-state to a certain mindset: the good-intentioned banning certain kinds of food or entertainment or other “consenting adult” style behaviors that percolates through the West. Of course, such precepts never gain much more than a toehold in the West because we’re too varied. Cultural control and diversity are mortal enemies. To have success with something like Gross National Happiness you need a monoculture -- a broad and deep agreement on what actually constitutes happiness. The Bhutanese have that and it seems to work well for them.

In any event, as knowledge and information drifted in from outside through various sources -- not the least of which elite families sending their children to schools in India and the West -- modernizations followed. One such modernization was the creation of an independent radio station, which is central to our story. An experienced media executive, Lisa Napoli, through a chance meeting or two, found herself flying halfway around the world to run this new radio station. It was quite and adventure and Napoli reveals it in a very engaging manner.

There is much cultural substance and event here, both large and small. Napoli has to gently induce a stronger professionalism to her colleagues, in an atmosphere that is more like a college radio station run by volunteers, without offending the more personal way of life of the Bhutanese. The portrayals of the young station employees and their almost adolescent love of Western pop culture is endearing. But there are also larger, more complex events. The first ever public elections, and the associated campaigns are occurring. And later, one of the friend/colleagues from her visit manages to scam her way to America in a romantic search for a dream, and for time disappears from sight.

I would have preferred more in depth examination of these events, the conflicts and motivations behind them -- they seem like a gold mine for observational and philosophical commentary -- but that’s not the direction Napoli chose. The subtitle of the book is “What I Discovered on my Accidental Journey to the Happiest Kingdom on Earth.” Napoli spends a fair amount of time on her emotional self-discovery. This is not necessarily a bad thing as we see her draw on a number of experiences and thrown in a touch Buddhist fatalism to come to terms with how her life has been shaped by her past and her decisions. This didn't interest me so much because I am old and have already internalized most of her lessons.

Should you read Radio Shangri-la? Sure. I liked it and this is one instance where I think most readers would enjoy it more than I did, that is to say most readers would probably appreciate the biographical personalization Napoli provides. It is written with warmth and delicacy and is never overly serious. Yes, I think you’d enjoy it.

Interestingly, Napoli is co-guiding a tour to Bhutan in 2014. It sounds amazing, but the fact that total overall cost for me would be something well north of ten grand, I’m going to have to pass. I’ll have to wait for an invitation when they need someone to teach them to how write books that don't sell. Then it’ll be my turn for such an adventure.

Tuesday, August 06, 2013

The Month That Was - July 2013

The Month That Was - July 2013: Grillin' and not really chillin'. I've actually be able to use my new grill a few times. Very successfully I might add. I've also been trying to spend a some time out on my deck which was going well until the heat wave struck. When it's in the mid-80s at 8 pm there is a very small window for enjoying the outdoors. I think I went almost a full week of having the A/C on every night. That hasn't happened in years. Usually the A/C is on 2 or 3 nights a summer at most.

But I've gotten to like grilling. I've been trying to be especially healthy about it. For instance, when I grilled burgers I omitted the bun and cheese and topped them with a touch of BBQ sauce and kimchi. Paired with grilled asparagus instead of a loaded baked potato. Teriyaki Salmon patties went along with vegetable kabobs. All in all, a very positive adventure in home ownership. And the deck itself is awesome when I can enjoy it. Late in the day -- say just before dusk -- it's in the shadow of the house so it deliciously cool and perfect for sleeping to sounds of the songbirds.

I now have three planned races coming up. Mid-August in Chicago, Early September on Mackinac Island, and late October in Washington DC. All three will be long weekends in fun places. With November comes Vegas and the Southwest as always and this time I'm hoping ot arrange a trip to The Wave. Unfortunately only 20 people are allowed to hike to the Wave on any given day and permission is granted based on a lottery. Ten slots are made available three months prior and ten are made available the day of the hike. So I'm in the early lottery for 3 days in November (around Thanksgiving). If I don't get in, and I probably won't since odds are slim, I haven't decided whether I will show up for a chance at the same day lottery. When I have my lottery answer, then I can start planning my November/Thanksgiving activities around that. Still, I will need to take another full week off before the end of the year. Working on that now...

(Update: I have my answer -- I'm no lottery winner. No I have to figure out whether to go anyway and shoot of a same day pass, or find another destination.)

[Books] Book Look: Charles Jessold, Considered as a Murderer
[Books] Book Look: Beneath the Neon
[Tech] How the Tech Are You?
[Sports] Just Another Tour
[Rant] Told Ya!

[Books] Book Look: Charles Jessold, Considered as a Murderer, by Wesley Stace

Book Look: Charles Jessold, Considered as a Murderer, by Wesley Stace: Well, this is a doozy. An early 20th century music critic finds his personal and professional life entangled with a prodigal young talent named Charles Jessold. Out of friendship and love of music, the Critic shepherds the Talent into a career of inestimable promise, even enduring the Talent's imprisonment in WW1 and subsequent chronic drunkenness upon return. All this comes crashing down as the Talent self-destructs in a swirl of adultery and murder. In return for his efforts the Critic seems to to get a small, but important, credit as an artist by contributing the libretto to an opera composed by the Talent. The Critic briefly gets to be a creator instead of consumer, to raise his status to contributor from mere judge, one who does instead of one who talks. (Note I am of the belief that as necessary and valuable good critics can be, they do in fact desire for a taste of the artistry of their subjects. It is easy for an artist to take up criticism, they are perceived to have a pre-existing credential as someone who's been there. The reverse is much harder.)

That's pretty much the first half of the book, told as a recounting -- a biography of sorts. It's a great story -- nicely told full of fine drama, but not an unheard of story. Nothing about it would jump out at you as out of the ordinary. Then comes part 2.

Here I have to censor myself because part 2 is effectively the same story but withholding no secrets. Here is where things get interesting and quite deep from a character perspective. I cannot divulge, but the a sharp reader will discern the truth ahead of time, although perhaps not in the fullest of detail. Part 2 is also where emotional reactions shift from strong curiosity to gut twisting and where to book steps up from quality fiction to something truly special.

Nabokovian would be a good word for it. A riveting yet tantalizingly slowly developing life tale, filled with damaged people who both harm and love each other, struggling with loneliness and weakness and dallying at the edge of morality.

It is also a paradigm of clear writing. Flawless sentence construction and passage structure. It hits that enviable sweet spot of simplicity and engagement. There is no special effort required to read it, yet there is no doubt you are reading something of the highest quality. The right touches of humor, and a clever mixing of the hidden and exposed. The structure and interplay of the two parts with a universal theme is quite remarkable. Honestly, it's worth a longer essay if I had the time.

Should you read Charles Jessold, Considered as a Murderer? Yes. It is one of the very best novels I have ever read.

[Books] Book Look: Beneath the Neon, by Matt O'Brien

Book Look: Beneath the Neon, by Matt O'Brien: I have a theory about nonfiction: The more it mirrors the qualities of fiction the better it is. OK, that's too dull a knife, but the thing is you still need to engage the reader beyond simply being a book length magazine article. You should think about the arc of the book; have a beginning middle and end; character development is great, if possible (although often the developed character is the author, which presents its own problems). Remember the post from last month identifying four aspects of storytelling: Character, Milieu, Events, Ideas? You still need these. Beneath the Neon started life as a series of magazine articles, and I suspect they were quite good because the book is essentially a good magazine article that got in over its head.

Las Vegas is, as you probably know, built in the middle of a desert. One characteristic of the desert is that when it rains, it pours. Literally. That is to say, a heavy rain in the surrounding mountains can cause massive floods as it flashes through the hard desert soil. So in Las Vegas there are a series of storm drains and flood plains that guide the water through underground tunnels and away from the slot machines. This tunnel complex snakes for miles beneath some of the glitziest and most luxurious properties in the world. This tunnel complex also houses a sizeable, and surprisingly stable, community of homeless.

O'Brien makes a number of exploratory forays into the tunnels. He finds them to be dark and scary places which I don't doubt -- dangerous too. Not a place you want to be a few minutes after a big rain in the mountains. Rushing water after a major rain has been known to take more than a few lives of homeless who were taken by surprise. It's also not a place you want to be because it's just disgusting -- spiders and roaches and rats, oh my. And worst of all, the very invisibility of the place can attract dangerous and desperate people. O'Brien's interest in the storm drains first arose upon reading about a grisly murder wherein the perp escaped a police dragnet via the tunnels.

Naturally O'Brien's explorations introduce him to the homeless who've taken up residence in the tunnels, often building very elaborate camps and sleeping arrangements. Why live in the tunnels instead of, say, a homeless shelter? The common answer is that the tunnels are simply free and cool and away from the Vegas madness and scorching heat, and especially because in the tunnels they are not bothered. The implication being the bureaucratic and therapeutic demands of the welfare services are too bothersome to them. Fair enough. In fact, there a number of common elements in the stories of the homeless. First is almost invariably some form of addiction, usually substance but since this is Vegas, gambling goes along with it. Second, they seem to acknowledge their addictions, there appears to be no inclination to cast blame on some scapegoat. Third, they have a plan for exit however tenuous it may be; usually it's as soon as they get a certain amount of money they are going to get out of town and straighten out their lives. The interactions with the homeless are quite interesting up to a point.

So far so good, but after a while the reader is left feeling as though there is no coherent purpose beyond documentation. By the end of the book we are now several tunnel explorations and homeless encounters on and we pretty much feel as though we've seen it all before. O'Brien makes half-hearted attempts at a unifying theme. He covers quite a bit of historical precedents for taking to tunnels -- Christians escaping Roman persecution, Jews in Poland during WW2 -- although it's hard to draw causal analogies of those situations to substance abuse. He also contrasts tunnel life to the gaudy world above and edges toward haves vs. have-nots issues but, to his credit, he has to abandon those as too simple-minded to offer any constructive meaning.

In the end we are left with the descriptions of his journeys which are peppered with extraneous details like what music was playing in the car and specific descriptions of his clothes that, when combined with the similarity of his adventures, begins to leave the sense that there is a fair amount of filler here. As if it is something that could be boiled down into a crisply worded Amazon short. Should you read Beneath the Neon? I don't see any particular urgency, but no harm will come to you if you do. Even if it doesn't merit a book length treatment, the topic is interesting. Might be worth getting a feel for which passages you can skip early on.