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.

[Tech] How the Tech Are You?

How the Tech Are You?: A new phone! How exciting! I finally reached my upgrade point which was fortuitous since my old phone had a legacy OS and a slowly failing battery. But my experience with it was good enough to keep me sold on Windows Phones so I went to Verizon and bought the best Windows Phone I could get -- the Nokia 928. It's pretty sweet and it had the very best camera of any phone -- until Nokia came out with a new model about two weeks after I purchased it. My phone easily matches a good quality point and shoot, but they claim the new one can compete with DSLRs (it has 41 megapixels).

Speaking of cameras, when my gargantuan old Nikon DSLR died I decided to downgrade to a point-and-shoot for my main camera. My reasoning was that in the time I owned my Nikon, point-and-shoots must surely have improved immeasurably, and I could get a nice big zoom (which I occasionally need) without buying an expensive lens and huge number of megapixels (the Nikon had a whopping 6) for relatively little money. I ended up with a Cannon Powershot SX260 -- got a bit of a deal on it, but I have to say, the picture quality still leaves a bit to be desired. For all the gaudy stats and technology of the p&s, my beat up old unstabilized D70 took better photos. The big zoom (20x) isn't so great since it kills detail, and it turns out that megapixels are a poor sacrifice for a big fat sensor. And the menu driven adjustments bother me. I like direct controls.

So I am on a soft hunt for a new camera (lucky I didn't spend much on the p&s -- I may sell it on ebay if I replace it). I'm really attracted to the new compact mirrorless devices from Sony. These things have high end sensors and top quality pictures in a smaller package than DSLRs. They are quite pricey though. Low end models are over $700 and I would require an extra lens so I wouldn't likely get out of it for less than a grand even if I purchased a package. Panasonic Lumix has a similar setup for a good deal less money, relatively. We'll have to wait and see. If I ever get to travelling to photo-worthy destinations again, it might be worth the investment.

My new Dell computer broke down on me, luckily while still under warranty. They sent someone out to my house to replace the motherboard. It was free and nearly painless -- except for getting razzed by my Mac-head friends who will happily drone on about how perfect their Apple products are. The Dell is nice -- it's light as a feather, great battery life, dead silent. As long as it keeps working it may redeem Dell from my previous experiences.

Lastly, I still can't really recommend the Kindle Fire. Being hooked into the Amazon ecosystem hasn't really paid off like I thought it would. You can get a Kindle client for Google Nexus, but you can get Google Play apps on the Kindle, at least not without some shuckin' and jivin'. Kindle Store is no match for Google play and Amazon media is no match for Netflix or Hulu Plus. Furthermore the Kindle seems to lock up or shut down on it's own some time. I have to admit that the Kindle has been fairly rugged and holds a charge pretty well, but all in all -- not recommended. Although as a dedicated reading device one of the cheap, non-Fire models is probably a reasonable purchase.

[Sports] Just Another Tour

Just Another Tour: Once again, I was the only person in North America following the Tour de France live. Well, not really live. I was following it about 12 hours delayed on the primetime coverage of the increasingly indispensable NBC Sports channel. The coverage is a delight. The announcers are dead on professionals and the commentators have the right balance of seriousness and humor (Bob "Bobke" Roll is a great character). The scenery and camera work is amazing and beautiful, even if they occasionally miss the key events. Honestly, I love the panning shots of the colors in the peloton flying past some medieval castle -- really astounding images. Plus, it's great to have on in the background while writing or web surfing on your tablet.

Last year's winner, Bradley Wiggins, was out with an injury so his second in command, Chris Froome, inherited the ace Team Sky, then put on a show himself cranking out some astounding stage performances. The personalities of the two contrast significantly (although they are great friends). Wiggins was, well, let's call it forthright in his opinions, and more than a little salty in his language. Froome is about as soft spoken and polite as they come. His favorite band is Coldplay and his favorite movie is Shawshank Redemption. Honestly. Of the two I like Froome better. He paid his dues the previous year and got his shot this year, then just stomped everybody. He looks something like a space alien -- tall and blade thin with skinny angular arms and legs (he's 6'1" and a touch over 150 lbs.). It will be interesting to see how Team Sky sets themselves up next year. Will they want Wiggins back? If so, Froome should go somewhere else because he has no business being anyone's second banana. Also there is Richie Porte, who was to Froome as Froome was to Wiggins, just sort of laying in wait. Team Sky is sitting pretty and it's a fair bet whoever their top rider is will be the favorite next year.

As to the remainder of the field, well, Alberto Contador demonstrated that he cannot dominate a race now that he's off the juice. Sorry, I'm not a big fan of Contador. As filled with prima donnas as the Tour is, there is a still a fairly firm tradition of sportsmanship that Contador won't hesitate to violate if it suits him, doping aside. Cadel Evans, who won two years ago was never really close to contention. Next year's yellow jersey competition is going to be wide open.

Sprinting is wide open now too, despite being dominated previously by Mark Cavendish. Andre Greipel and Marcel Kittel were all over him at every finish line. And Peter Sagan took the green jersey by being a more rounded cyclist overall and swamping all the mid-race sprints. It's strange not to see Cavendish as unbeatable and it's hard to tell what happened this year. Either he didn't get the team support he needed or he's just getting older (trust me, that happens fast and shows up quickly when thousandths of a second count). He was also the focus of what little controversy there was in the Tour when he accidentally sideswiped another rider during a sprint, leaving him on the ground near the finish. I seriously doubt there was any sort of intent to it, but Cavendish is profoundly prickish and so the French took the opportunity to vilify him a bit. The following day somebody threw a cupful of urine on him. (Try to imagine what it is like in the mind of an individual who saves his pee in a cup to throw on one if the riders in the Tour de France. You can't, can you? To call it sociopathic is generous.)

The other news was the emergence of a rookie Colombian rider Nairo Quintana who proved to be an amazing climber and won the white jersey as the best young rider. He has the personality of a cardboard cutout but that may just be due to youth and language. He was the only one who seemed to be able to challenge Froome in the mountains. The most promising American was also a rookie, Andrew Talansky who finished 10th overall and second to Quintana for the white jersey. I hope something comes of him. It'll be good for the sport to have an American in the mix for yellow, so perhaps I'm not so lonely in my viewership. Don't forget the U.S. has exactly one Tour de France winning rider in it's history now, thank you very much Lance.

Which brings me to a lurking problem. When following cycling you have to hold back. You have to be careful not to get too enthusiastic. Recent history suggests that any one of these guys might end up stripped of whatever victories they have because of the juice. In this way cycling is similar to baseball now. Baseball as it is being played on the field now is probably the best it has even been (I should really do a post on that), but there's always that little voice in the background that tells you not to get too excited because that other shoe is dangling by a thread. It's going to be quite a few years until either of these sports shake that spectre.

But it won't stop me from picturing myself on a long open road, pedalling smoothly in a tall gear through an expansive vineyard, then snaking into rustic village and past a 14th century abbey. I know exactly what it would look like.

[Rant] Told ya!

Told Ya!: As Charles Barkley said, "I could be wrong, but I don't think so." Examples of the world catching up to my astonishing insights:
  • Safer is not better: "The larger fact is that, by today's standards, most parents of that era deserved to do time at Leavenworth. What sinners they were! They sent us outside without sunscreen, let us ride bikes without helmets and jump on trampolines without 'safety barriers,' and smiled as we vied with our siblings for the premier spot in the family sedan: the ledge underneath the back window, where you could stretch out and take a nap." As I mentioned in this post.
  • TV is our predominant art form, not movies:"...cable television's open-ended serial dramas represent 'the signature American art form of the first decade of the twenty-first century.'" I have made this point multiple times of the years, the last in an off the cuff comment back in '10, but in the past couple of years I've actually moved on to worrying about the golden age being over and what's next. All my TV posts here.
  • The times aren't a changin' anymore: "As novelist Douglas Coupland has pointed out, ordinary people in photographs from 1993 are indistinguishable from people in photographs now. Can you name another 20-year period in modern American history when this is true? 1900-20? 1920-40? 1970-90? His analysis: There's not much geist left in the zeit." Another common theme here. I mentioned this just last month. Maybe I could sue Douglas Coupland. Or he me.