Tuesday, December 09, 2014

The Month That Was - November 2014

No idea what happened to this month. I looked up and it was nearly gone. Let's see… I continued my battle to figure out a strategy for lost car key recovery. I have failed so far. As I write this I am on vacation, a few days on the sunny Gulf and then the traditional Thanksgiving in Vegas. I have made a bit of progress writing. We had a visit from evil friend, the polar vortex, just before I headed south. And now I'm left to figure out what happened to the month.
As I write this, I'm back from vacation and I have no idea where the last ten days went. I'm late posting this and you still get a short shrift; a car rant and a trip report. Hopefully back to normal pointless chaos next time, provided I escape this temporal vortex.

[Cars] Car Keyed
[Travel] Thanksgiving As Always

[Cars] Car Keyed

No, my car wasn't keyed. The keys are the problem. Or maybe it's just some kind of obsessive overreaction on my part. You be the judge.

My new Acura has a keyless entry system. That means the car has proximity sensors in the doors and the trunk that sense and react when the key is near. So if I have the key in my pocket all I need to do is touch the inside of the door handle and the door unlocks. Then, once seated in the driver seat, I can just press a button on the dash and the car starts. I never have to take my key out of my pocket, or if I were a woman, I would presumably never have to take my key out of my purse. Nifty.

It goes further. You get two keys (labelled 1 and 2) and the car knows which key was used to open it. Each key can have specific radio presets and seat positions, so if you have two drivers the car automatically sets itself up correctly for whoever is driving the car. I don't have two drivers but I can see where that would be useful.

Here's the problem. You can only have two keys at once, ever. You get one key 1 and one key 2. That's it -- no backups. You can get a replacement key but it must be programmed to be either key 1 or key 2 and once it is programmed the previous key 1 or key 2 no longer will work. You will only ever have two keys in existence that will start the car. There is no old fashioned key back-up that you can keep in your wallet (which is what I have done for decades). If you are hundreds of miles from home and you lose your key your car becomes a $30,000 dollar brick. You have to make arrangements to get it to the nearest Acura dealer or you have to make arrangements to get home and get your backup key. A replacement key itself along with the programming of it will run you about $400. Couple that with whatever transportation arrangements you have to make for yourself and/or the car and you are looking a four figures for a lost key. Yeeow!

You ask: Why not just keep both keys with you? Possible. These are big fat key fobs. It would be almost like carrying an extra cell phone everywhere. Also, you would have to take the time to program the car identically for both keys or it would be confused about where to set the drivers seat and the radio presets. Do-able but annoying as hell.

You ask: Can you hide the spare key somewhere on the car in one of those magnetic boxes? Maybe. But remember the proximity sensors will simply open the car if a key is near. So that would be risky.

[Travel] Thanksgiving As Always

Another iteration of what is getting to be my standard Thanksgiving trip: A few days in Florida visiting family and exploring the Gulf coast, then over to Vegas for some football betting, including a day or two of a road trip somewhere out West.

Leg one this year was spent on Manasota Key which is about an hour south of Sarasota and an hour north of Fort Myers. It is certainly not one of the more renowned areas of the Gulf, but it may be an underrated gem. Gaining access involves passing through the suburb of Englewood, which is not an especially wealthy area -- not that it's bad, just not the high end stuff one usually finds in the area -- then crossing the bridge over the sound leaves you roughly in the middle of the Manasota Key. To the south are the smaller, older homes, and various motels and inns. To the north the homes reach up into the millions. I headed south.

My base of operations was Weston's WannaB Inn, a very Florida place if there ever was one. I pulled up to the office only to be greeted with a sign saying they would be back in fifteen minutes; people forget that away from the major tourist meccas, Florida is still the South.. Weston's maintains quite a number of buildings on both the beach and the sound side. Bright, solid colors are the theme throughout. Lounge chairs are peppered along the beach and around the pool. The rooms are clean, the folks are friendly. The wi-fi worked...intermittently. It's a real sweet out of the way place. The beach is absolutely perfect. I had a gulf-facing balcony which was pure pleasure to sit on and enjoy the breeze and make you forget about all the activities you were planning. Weston's goes on the list for future consideration.

Weston's is as far south as you can go on the key before you hit the entrance to Stump Pass Beach State Park, which extends about a mile and a half to the tip of teh key. The park features a walking trail through the swampy woods to the end of the key, along with openings where you can reach the sound to launch a canoe or fish. At the very end of the Key, across the channel is Don Pedro Island, an island of vacations homes only accessible by boat (it's on the list for the future). From the tip of the key you can walk the gulf beach all the way back to Weston's. Along the way are these strange denuded trees angling up in various direction like makeshift abstract sculptures. Of course, this being Florida, the wild world is never too far. The little geckos and crabs scurry away at your approach. The pelicans and the osprey dive for fish. A fellow fishing right off the beach in front of my room landed a little baby shark, probably three feet long. For all Florida's glitter, there is no mistaking that it is veneer over the wild swamp.

Speaking of wild...I did an obstacle race through the swamp. This would be my fourth obstacle race, and probably my worst result. It was a 10k through a the Tippecanoe Wilderness Park near Port Charlotte. Footing was muddy and terrible. The obstacles were tough -- I failed on the monkey bars which is unusual for me. From my first step I was never in the zone; each step was leaden, each obstacle a chore. Still, I finished and got second place in my age group, an outcome indicative of the number of people actually in my age group. Even as I look back I don't know what my problem was. It was a good race setup, if rather disorganized. There was a full meal and entertainment at the end, which was a step up from the usual lukewarm bottled water and stale muffins. Everyone was very friendly. I don't know what went wrong with me. The problem is that every time I have a bad race I worry that the degradation is permanent -- that it is indicative of my long slide into old age. So the start of my trip was a bit of a downer.

But who can stay down when you have the beach and Gulf and so much to explore. I visited Venice, which is lovely in an almost Savannah-GA-moss-covered-trees sort of way. It too has a lovely beach. My other point of exploration was Boca Grande on Gasparilla Island, a very high end place that cost six dollars a bridge toll just to access. It was even higher-end. Obviously very tightly controlled building with the north end filled with condo developments and the south end a State Park. Sandwiched in between is the town of Boca Grande, a quaint place of shops and restaurants. When i say it is very high end, I especially mean the Gasparilla Inn, which is the flagship resort on the island and known haunt of the rich and famous.

Gasparilla and Boca Grande are nice, but they are one of the few places I have been to on the Florida Gulf that I would call uninviting. Parking is difficult and/or expensive; restaurants further from town, where parking is especially sparse, have guards out front to chase people away. (I can't imagine a more soul crushing job that sitting on the asphalt in the baking Florida sun telling people they can't park in your lot.) The atmosphere is very controlled, many of the condo developments are not only gated, but fronted by concrete walls. It all just seems like they are saying, "Fine, you have a right to be on the island, but we're gonna make you pay."

That, of course, is all mere impression. I'm sure the great mass of people love Gasparilla unconditionally. And a lot of the heavy-handedness is probably due a mass influx of humanity into a confined area especially in the Spring for tarpon season (which is like deer season up north). Come to think of it, my beloved Sanibel and Captiva are little different. Not that it matters anyway because I could never afford to live there. Although I certainly would if the opportunity presented itself, and I would probably come to love it.

Exploring done, no decisions made, other than coming to the realization that a place on the gulf for me probably means a condo in a building as opposed to any kind of house. I would love something beachside -- that would be the dream. My room at Weston's was beachside and there was nothing like the steady gulf breeze to cool me and falling asleep to the sound of the surf. But beachside will mean compromises. I can only file it away for now.

The next step was a couple of night in Sarasota visiting with family. I have spoken of Sarasota many times before. It is a truly great little city. Terrific arts community and surrounded by fun and interesting things to do. Realistically, Siesta key or even Longboat Key would be ideal for me with beach side living but easy access to Sarasota, but expensive doesn't begin to describe it. I remain in discovery mode.

Florida covered, we move on to part two of my vacation with a flight to Vegas. But first a travel note. I have, perhaps surprisingly, not registered for TSA Pre. No reasons other than the inconvenience of being required to showing up in person at an office to do so, when the office nearest me is about a half hour drive, and since I'm usually upgraded to First Class nowadays the security lines are less daunting. But you can be assigned TSA Pre status even if you're not registered. And literally all three of my flight legs (to Florida, to Vegas, back home) I got the TSA Pre assignment. I don't know the formula by which they decide this. Perhaps they just assume that a 50-something guy who's never broken the law and has flown hundreds of similar legs on Delta is unlikely to have suddenly become an Islamic fanatic and just happens to want to blow up the same flight he would normally use to go on vacation. But whatever the case, TSA Pre is nice. No taking off your shoes and belt, no laptop removal. A small but pleasing little benefit.

So back to Vegas, about which I won't say much, this being my 13th (?) Thanksgiving in town. I stayed at the relatively new Delano for the first half. Delano took over one of my old favorites, THEhotel, and gave it a highly styled lobby and a room refresh. It's a terrific place, although it is about as far south on the Strip as possible, making Strip-trolling a bit more challenging. Although different from the stark modernism of THEhotel, I can't see that it is any better. The lobby is certainly more striking -- Delano excels in lobbies. The lobby of the Delano in Miami Beach is astounding, and a central social hub for the city. But the all white decor of the rooms is, non-objectively, less attractive that the more traditional decor of THEhotel. Still, if you're inclined don't hesitate. It's an all around excellent hotel. Oh, one other stand out -- the wi-fi was blazingly fast -- even faster than my home set up.

Part 2 was at the Trump International. I have always shied away from the Trump as it is technically "off-strip", but I came to see that it is really only technically. A three minute walk through the Fashion Show Mall or along the street next to it gets you to the north end of mid-strip, i.e. Wynn. The Donald's place is absolutely top notch. I was in a very basic room and it was fine a suite as I've ever had in Vegas. Huge bathroom, expansive sitting area, plenty of closet space, fridge and microwave. Two big things: (1) the bottled water on the counter, for which most places charge ridiculous prices if you open, was free and got replaced daily, (2) housekeeping did actual housekeeping -- straightening things and folding clothes that were left out, whereas most places it's just vacuum and make the bed. Great stuff, and given it's "off-strip" status, cheap too. I'm giving Trump my highest recommendation for Vegas, and that's saying something -- after all, I've been at this for 14 years. It is almost certainly as good a value proposition I've encountered.

Apart from the hotels I did little new in Vegas this visit. I stuck to my rails -- bourbon at the Mandarin Bar, a high end burger at Holsten's (the Rising Sun Burger, now my new favorite), I had delicious plate of lasagna bolognese at Sinatra, visited the new SLS casino (nice, but don't go out of your way) and blew some money in the sportsbook, which could be it's own essay (and maybe will be). Just a typical Vegas Thanksgiving, happily anonymous in the crowd and the flash.

Aside: I do need to do something about the football wagers. For years my system based on DVOA from Football Outsiders had served me well, but the last two years it let me down seriously. I needs re-thinking. Plus I need to get to Vegas early in the week to catch the lines before they completely rationalize. I also, need to bet at Westgate where they have more varied line, spread, and teaser options. Mostly, this is just a note to self.

The key adventure here was in between the Vegas parts when I blasted out of town and into the desert. My vehicle for this adventure was a black Ford Mustang. Since it was a rental, I'm sure it was only the six-cylinder version but that's still over 300 horsepower and it was a phenomenal car for barrelling along the desert highways. A bit noisy at low speeds, but it really came into it's own on the highway. Coming up on a string of RVs at 75 mph and needing to pass them on a two lane road, I just stuck my foot down and flew by them. I glanced at the speedo before ducking back into the right lane and I was touching 120, just like that. The ‘Stang was utterly composed, I had no idea; I would have guessed 90-95 tops. It's a bit of a throwback, manual headlights, simple instrumentation (which is nice), also a bit of a rattle here and there (which is not). I can see why folks love them so much. The GT models must be scary fast.

So like I said, I was barreling south through the desert -- the Mojave to be specific -- past the "town" of Cima (actually a closed general store and a trailer in the back), through miles and miles of joshua trees and scrub (last place you want to have a break down) to the railway stop of Kelso (a fine place to stop, with little museum) and on through numerous hardscrabble desert rat settlements. The first sizeable place you reach coming back to civilization is the town of Twenty-Nine Palms which seems to be trying too hard to be thought of as a desert oasis vacation destination. An hour-ish beyond that and you reach the string of real desert oasis vacation destinations starting with Palm Springs and extending through it's sisters, Palm Desert, Indio, and La Quinta, all along the Coachella Valley.

One the striking attributes of the desert is how humans have created completely out-of-character places seemingly out of nothing. So you travel miles and miles through desert scrub and ramshackle towns and suddenly you're in neon shine of Las Vegas among otherworldly resorts, then you're out in the scrub again for hundreds more miles, then suddenly you're in the green golf mecca of Palm Springs among pristine country clubs. The contrast is striking.

My crash joint was Homewood Suites in La Quinta, but all the towns along the valley are pretty much interchangeable. The streets are broad and flat and there are enormous gated golf communities peppered throughout. I was a bit jealous. I have never played golf, but there are an extraordinary number of people who make it the center of their lives -- they buy homes next to courses or join expensive clubs. They travel to any interesting course they can would like to play, kind of what I have done with running the past couple of years. I can't really blame them. Golf courses are inherently vernal, attractive places and the most beautiful ones will drop you in your tracks.

Even though I have never been moved to take up golf, when I see such enthusiasm by huge numbers of people I wonder if there is something I'm missing. Is it reasonable to take up golf at age 54? I would only be interested in getting good enough to not embarrass myself, and to understand the attraction of it. If I liked it, maybe that's an alternative retirement for me: buy a house in one of the golf clubs out here in the Coachella Valley. Like Florida, it gets way too hot in the summer (but it's a dry heat, right? yeah, right) but at least out here you can take a run up into the mountains for a break.

And, even though it wasn't more than mid-70s, that's what I did. In the mountains just outside Palm Desert is an escape town called Idyllwild. I believe the elevation is in town is on the order of 5500 feet, but the surrounding roads and hiking trails can cross 8000. It's about an hour's drive up one of those winding, edge defying mountain roads into town, where it looks more like a forest town in the U.P. than the California desert. The pine woods are thick and the air is thin and cool. Much of the core area is rustic, though obviously very well maintained. It's filled with shops and restaurants; no doubt it is overrun during the hot months. It was moderately busy on the Saturday after Thanksgiving, mimicking a cool early fall day in Michigan, but not so much that there were no parking spaces or seats at the bar.

Also in the area are a bewildering array of County, State, and National Parks, all with different rules and regulations. I had intended to do a hike and after some slapstick attempts to find the trailhead outside town, I discovered it was really inside town, more or less -- not that there was clear signage. As a result, I paid for parking at a place I didn't want to be. I eventually found the trailhead and started up these steep switchbacks on my way to Tahquiz Peak -- brilliant views all the way -- only to encounter a ranger about half way there, who told me I couldn't hike without a permit, and gave me an obviously rehearsed lecture about trail safety. Not wanting to be scolded, I smiled and apologized and turned myself around and headed back to town where I settled for a seriously tasty steak sandwich and beer at a local restaurant. Frustrating, but not so much to turn me off Idyllwild. (A cabin up there will play into to my Palm Springs retirement fantasy as a matter of policy.) I can see making it the middle of my Vegas sandwich in the future. It's the sort of place that warrants more exploration than a day trip. I suspect there is more the a day trip of stuff to find up there.

So that was another of my classic thanksgiving weekend Western swings. Not the best and not the worst. I racked up more new sights, visited more locales, generated more ideas, and lost more football bets (grrrr!). There are times I wonder why I come out here every year, and the answer is that I'll know why when I'm here. Or more properly, I'll know why when I'm about to go home, because I'm always glad I came.

Friday, November 07, 2014

The Month That Was - October 2014

I spent the month doing a form of research on my new book, which I have finally started in earnest. Starting is hurdle one, now I have to conceptualize the whole story; that's hurdle two. I could be a while. I wonder if this one will get done by the time I'm 60.

Stuff fails and gets fixed or gets lived with. I had to replace the battery on my laptop, which I was able to do on my own with a little help from Youtube, but I admit I made a mistake in giving Dell a second chance. My new car is fully interwoven in my life, the only issue being a slow leak from nail in the tire; patched under warranty. Remaining unfixed is a toilet shut off valve -- that'll will go to a plumber, and garage door lights that don't go on and proximity lights that also don't go on (yes I have changed the bulbs) -- that will also need a pro. Goal for this winter is to finally get the upstairs painted as I have been threatening to do for two years now. Carpet stretching and some flooring work is needed. Master bath make-over is in its second year on the wish list. I still have loud duct work that is going on the fourth year, but that is such an enormous project I will have to expend a good deal of energy just to make to phone call for an estimate. I'm dreaming of renting again.

I should do a technology recap post next month (note to self). I should also start planning my race and travel schedule for next year. The wheel turns.

[Rant] State of the Blog
[Books] Book Look: Why Does the World Exist
[TV] Bye-Bye Boardwalk
[Movies] Marevl-ous Movies
[Travel, Health and Fitness] Ubranathlon

[Rant] State of the Blog

Under the heading of Tempus Fugit, I believe this is my 15th year blogging. When i started out it was on the page that used to learn HTML. There was no archiving. I moved posts around via copy and paste, completely reforming the page every time it got too big. It was hosted on my local internet provider, which still exists -- Provide.Net -- and still prominently dispalys its dial-up service. (Related: AOL still has over 2 million dial-up users.) Back then I tried to post a few interesting links and some brief comments everyday. Real base level blogging. It was what everyone was doing. We exchanged links and promoted each other's sites and posts. There was no Google; getting Yahoo's index was the big thing. I managed to get listed under Blogs section and alphabetically at the top of the list. That generated a good deal of traffic. I actually made connects with some prominent folks. But things changed quite rapidly. From a technical perspective everyone moved to hosted services. Blogger, pre-Google, was a big one, and is where I still am. Wordpress came along later and was more feature filled, which was important because as soon as everyone started blogging, everyone needed an edge or else you drifted into obscurity. Which is what I did.

There is very little amatuer blogging left. One or two prominent sites survived (Kottke). Other went corporate (Gawker being one service, albeit execrable). The well focused ones morphed into news sites (Ars Technica comes to mind). Most of the old blogs were whittled down to a small circle of readers and essentially functioned as a poorly designed versions of what would eventually be done better by contemporary social media.

So years ago I stopped blogging per se and just turned this site into a monthly diary. Though it's not really a diary in that I don't reveal my most intimate thoughts or anything that could be used against me or anybody else. I'm not the type to do that, which I count as a plus. I have very few regular readers. I get an occasional traffic blip if one of my posts gets linked up elsewhere, but for the most part this is just a document of my life and thoughts how I have spent my time. Is it of any value? To me it is. Sitting down at the end of every month to remember what I've done/read/watched/thought keeps me disciplined to write and I suspect it may provide some emotional comfort I my waning years. It gives me an outlet for my thoughts and opinions without having to worry about being shouted down or interrupted -- people tend to give the written word more thought than the spoken word -- at least the few people left who read do. But mostly, I've learned that if you are moved to do something and you have the opportunity, you shouldn't spend time questioning your motives. Often the experience itself reveals your motives in time.

So I continue.

[Books] Book Look: Why Does The World Exist?, by Jim Holt

The title is a slightly vague. By "Why does the world exist?", you might think he was looking for an is-there-a-God? type answer. Nope: more basic. Holt attempts to find out why there is something rather than nothing. But even that question is ripe for misinterpretation. Most people when confronted with that would interpret it as Why is there stuff rather than an empty universe? or What came before the Big Bang? You have to go deeper still. The question is really why is there existence? Empty space is "something". What Holt is talking about is really nothing, not even empty space or time itself. Why is there existence at all?

This question is so far removed from our lives, so abstract, and so impossible to answer that it really is about as purely an intellectual exercise as can be conceived. The practical value is pretty close to zero. In fact I would argue the question cannot be answered by the human mind since every path leads to something-from-nothing philosophical gymnastics and unavoidable logical conflicts. To me this indicates that if there is an answer it is simply beyond the capabilities provided to our minds by the parochial path of our evolution. Interestingly, one of Holt's interviewees, none other than the late novelist John Updike, had reached precisely the same conclusion.

Still, those minds have been bestowed with a healthy dose of intellectual curiosity -- for some of us anyway -- so we indulge. Holt takes us on a journey from Paris to Oxford to Manhattan to Texas and back, where he interviews some of the high-end philosophers and cosmologists who have struggled with this question, along the way pointing out how similar approaches and conclusions have been reached by historical figures, going all the way back to Plato. If nothing else, this book will demonstrate that while our knowledge of the functional features of the universe has expanded astronomically (pun not intended), our answers to the ultimate questions still boil down to the same logical concepts as they have for thousands of years, and they still run into the same problems. The fundamental problem is that either there is a brute fact or infinity, neither of which our minds can comprehend.

A brute fact is, essentially, a thing that just is. It can take many forms: God, the Singularity, Logic, Goodness -- whatever it is called, it is the thing that started it all. It was not caused to exist by anything else, it is just there and that's that. Philosophers call this a contingency problem: a Brute Fact simply is, it is not contingent on anything else for it to happen. Our minds rebel at this because everything we see in the course of our lives, and everything anyone has ever observed, has a cause. It makes no sense to us not to ask, "How did this happen?"

The problem with that is that you then open the door to infinity. If everything was caused by something there is no starting point. Infinity is beyond our comprehension. Everything in our experience, however big or small, reaches a limit. We use the concept of infinity colloquially, but it never actually means infinity. We use it in mathematical equations conceptually, but when we try to apply it to the real world things get unreal straight away. If infinity shows up in your theory in physics, you're dead.

And yet, all this is tangential to the question at hand. We think that if we could figure out the source of existence we could explain why existence exists. There may be a good deal of distance between those answers. So we are pretty far removed from being pretty far removed.

That is not to imply this book is a pointless exercise. (Really, if you purchased a book actually expecting it to tell you the reason for everything, you need to rethink your existence on a more personal level.) But should you read Why Does the World Exist? I give it a qualified Yes. It's blast for anyone who is given to seriously musing about such topics. Holt writes clearly, especially considering the often intricate complexity of the topic, and with just enough irreverence to give the impression he's doing it all with a sly grin. Then he ups his game in the final chapters when it all comes back to a personal level. Still, I'm not sure how it would work out going in totally cold. I've been a reader of pop-sci books for years and tend to spend a lot of time in my own head, which is the only place this topic has much value. Without a least a passing, casual understanding of fundamental ideas like quantum mechanics and a penchant for abstract musing, some of this may sail right by. If you are a very practical person, you can safely pass. But have no doubt, this is a very rewarding read. As Updike says, we may not be able to figure it out, "but who doesn't love the universe."

[TV] Bye-Bye Boardwalk

We bid farewell to Boardwalk Empire, a show that was impeccable in craftsmanship, but never really did set passions aflame. I enjoyed watching it throughout it's run, but I never really saw anything more to it than an expertly crafted drama; it was more admirable than engrossing. But I must say the final, shortened season did raise it even higher in my esteem. That's saying something. Most shows go out with a mad rush to closure, and while B.E. did take some turns to that end, nothing was really out of place and the closure fit very well into the storylines.

Boardwalk was imbued with quality from the outset. Terence Winter, and his Sopranos pedigree, headed up the show. Scorsese was involved early on. The key actors were not there for their big names alone. Even in the smaller, transient roles, the casting (the most underrated aspect of TV production) was impeccable. Casting director Meredith Tucker, another Sopranos alum, should be dripping with Emmys for this. (I think she won one, but I can't imagine her not getting one for this final season.) In the last season she had to cast younger versions of many of the characters for flashbacks, include two younger versions of Nucky Thompson. The results ranged from spot-on to absolutely uncanny.

The cinematography also stood out, and I know this because it was noticeably skillful, and there are very few shows you can say that you noticed the exceptional camera work and composition. The first thing that stood out were the scenes with Al Capone and his lackeys. Designed to be almost cartoon-like in their exaggeration. It looked like something out of a stage play ensemble were movements and short comments are all choreographed to point to the lead character. Once you notice that, you start to notice how every shot is composed and lit specifically to enhance the scene. And I mean every. I don't think there's a throwaway camera angle to be found.

The first four seasons played out in pretty standard Sopranos-esque form. Ensembles mixed and ingled, there were no innocents - the heroes could do evil, the villains could seem sympathetic. There was a central conflict and some key character got whacked towards the end. There was a great deal of activity, wonderful acting, and a vitality that came from the exceptional characterizations. Also, it never acquired the Sneer-at-the-Cavemen Syndrome so many period dramas succumb to, where everyone is portrayed as a morally-stunted, unenlightened, boorish, bigoted cliche (see: Masters of Sex, or The Knick) by contemporary standards. On this last point, special kudos need to go to season 4, which featured a storyline involving the struggle of two ruthless black men for control of the "colored" business in Atlantic City. The facts of existence for blacks in that time were never ignored, but the two principals were not helpless victims, nor righteous crusaders. They were individuals in morally base power struggle, and their ultimate story was personal, not socio-political, and therefore much more powerful than it would have been in the hands of a more shallow-minded show-runner. This is what I mean by excellent dramatic craftsmanship.

In fact, by almost any measure of TV quality it was a cut above. But, still, there was no sense of anything larger going on. I never really got emotionally invested in any of these characters. Their successes or failures or whackings simply weren't that moving because I saw no greater purpose. Then season 5 came and pulled it all together. As I said, closure was a big goal, but closure can be done well or done poorly (The Wire, for example). As expected Boardwalk's closure was done well; so well that it elevated the series as a whole. In fact, just to increase the difficulty factor, the closure leaned on lengthy flashbacks which, for most drama, is begging for trouble.

Leaving aside the supporting characters, for whom no closure was a throwaway, the big reconciliation was for Nucky Thompson. Thinking back to the pilot, I remember having serious reservations about Steve Buscemi. A perpetual second banana (often an essential one), I was concerned he could carry the lead role in such a series. I was wrong to worry, he was excellent through and through, and in fact, there were occasional points where things crawled a bit when he wasn't the focus.

Part of the success of Nucky's closure through flashbacks, in addition to the casting I mentioned above, was the absolutely astounding work done by the actors of the younger versions to affect the mannerisms and speech habits of their older counterparts that we were thoroughly familiar with. The flashbacks gave us the childhood seed of Nucky's obsessive greed (or simple ruthless ambition, I suppose), how that led the young adult original sin of his introducing Gillian to the execrable Commodore, and how that act destroyed lives and killed people, including himself two generations on. It turned the whole series into a nicely structured Greek tragedy. An inspired ending to say the least.

A sprawling Greek tragedy is a good way to view Boardwalk Empire, virtually everyone gets the comeuppance they merit, as determined by their personal flaws. I don't think Boardwalk measures up to the big 4 (Deadwood, Sopranos, The Wire, Mad Men). But it is one of only two in the next tier down (along with Breaking Bad). Once Mad Men is gone next year, nothing current will come close to it.

[Movies] Marvel-ous Movies

I have been on a bit of a jag about how TV quality has declined from it's pinnacle of a decade ago. I should soften that view because it is still light-years better than it was three decades ago. The same can't be said for movies. Movies have encountered a truly fundamental problem with their very existence. Whatever the film, going to the movies can now be described as streaming video, except in an uncomfortable room with a bunch of strangers, bad food, and no pause or rewind. Why would anyone do that?

Real movies come to theatres first -- big screen before small screen. Remove the theatre from going to the movies and the difference between a movie and TVs is that you might have to pay a little extra to watch it on your flat screen before everyone else. To differentiate the product -- to make it something different from TV -- movies have to be seen in theatres.

So we can define a real movie as one that you so desperately want to see right away that you are willing to pay to have it streamed in an uncomfortable room with strangers and no potty breaks for 2-3 hours. I don't think I'm going out on a limb to suggest this is not a growth product.

What are the qualities of such a movie? Well, it would have to have characters you are invested in -- that is to say, a sequel or a tie in to a TV show or book series. But that alone is not enough. You would still be able to wait for TV. What you need beyond that is an audience that is impatiently passionate enough about these characters to need to know RIGHT AWAY what is happening to them -- you just can't wait a couple of months or be happy with the spoilers on the web, it's gotta be NOW. Who gets like that over fictional characters? Kids and Nerds. Mostly nerds. That's actually a sizable demographic. Most adults, even 54-year-old me, has some nerd inside. And it doesn't hurt to have visual spectacle of the sort that benefits from a huge screen or IMAX.

So it becomes plainly obvious that the foreseeable future of movies belongs to Marvel Comics (including Marvel, Sony, and Fox productions) and J.J. Abrams reboots (Star Wars/Star Trek), with DC Comics and Hunger Games as ginger step kids. With that in mind here is the announced release roadmap going through 2020(!):

May 1 - "Avengers: Age of Ultron" - (Marvel)
June 19 - "Fantastic Four" - (Fox)
July 17 - "Ant-Man" - (Marvel)
December 18 - "Star Wars: Episode VII - (Disney)
March 25 - "Superman Vs. Batman" - (Warner)
May 6 - "Captain America: Civil War" - (Marvel)
May 27 - "X-Men: Age of Apocalypse" (Fox)
Summer - Untitled Star Wars Entry - (Disney)
August 8 - "Suicide Squad" (DC Supervillain Epic) - (Warner)
November 4 - "Doctor Strange" (Marvel)
November 11 - "Sinister Six" (Spider-Man supervillain epic) - (Sony)
March 3 - Wolverine movie - (Fox)
May 5 - "Guardians of the Galaxy 2" - (Marvel)
Summer - "Star Wars: Episode VIII - (Disney)
June 23 - "Wonder Woman" - (Warners)
July 14 - "Fantastic Four 2" - (Fox)
July 28 - "Thor III" - (Marvel)
November 3 - "Black Panther" - (Marvel)
November 17 - "Justice League: Part One" - (Warners)
No date yet - Spider-Man Venom movie - (Sony)
No date yet - Female-driven Spider-Man movie - (Sony)
March 23 - "The Flash" - (Warners)
May 4 - "Avengers: Infinity War part One - (Marvel)
May 4 - "The Amazing Spider-Man 3 - (Sony)
Summer - Star Wars Han Solo Movie - (Disney)
July 6 - "Captain Marvel" (Marvel)
July 13 - Unknown Fox movie - (Fox)
July 27 - "Aquaman" - (Warners)
November 2 - "Inhumans" - (Marvel)
April 5 - "Shazam" - (Warners)
May 3 - "Avengers: Infinity War Part Two - (Marvel)
Summer - "Star Wars: Episode IX" - (Disney)
June 14 - "Justice League: Part Two - (Warners)
April 3 - "Cyborg" (Warners)
Summer - Red Five Star Wars Movie - (Disney)
June 19 - "Green Lantern" - (Warners)

I will, of course, see none of these in a theatre. I value my inner nerd, but he is fully domesticated at this point. That means when I finally get around to seeing that final planned Star Wars film, I'll be 60 years old. Considering the probable size of my prostate at that point, I'll really need that pause button.

[Travel, Health and Fitness] Urbanathlon

After last month's Tough Mudder you'd think I'd lay off the damn obstacle races for awhile. Nope. The Urbanathlon was up next. Actually, I had targeted this race for a few years but this was the never managed to get it together enough to pull the trigger until this year, mostly because friends announced they were doing it and once I committed I couldn't back out. Plus, the race was in Chicago, giving me a chance to visit my home city.

Yes, that's right. I called Chicago my home city. I was born in Detroit, raised in the Detroit suburbs, and have lived in and around Ann Arbor for the 35 years since, yet I am officially adopting Chicago, or rather I am forcing the city to adopt me. It only makes sense. In the past fifteen years I have been to Detroit exactly twice, maybe three more times into the suburbs. As a general rule for life, I don't like to go east of U.S. 23 (except to get to the airport). On the other hand I have probably been to Chicago at least ten times, despite the 4 hour trip. So that's that. Chicago is my Big City.

Although one of the downsides to going to Chicago for a race is that there is usually a good deal of walking involved beforehand. When I ran the Chicago 10K last year I estimate I probably walked five miles between hoofing it around to pick up my race packet the day before then walking to the race the next morning. For the urbanathlon there was a bit less walking involve but still a disruptive amount. For whatever reason, I am constructed such that walking and standing take a greater toll on my legs for a comparable distance. Aerobically running is much harder of course, but I can come in after a five mile hike and my feet and joints feel like they have really taken a beating as if I ran twice as far.

The race itself is about ten miles long with obstacles peppered throughout the course, getting more frequent towards the end. Most are pretty standard over/under sequences. It's run right along the lakeshore path from the Museum Campus to Navy field and back, roughly. There is no mud, no fire, no electricity. There was a cold and wind and rain. And the signature "obstacle" was Soldier Field. At about mile 6 you enter Soldier Field and run the steps. Not all the steps of course but I would estimate the sequence required consists of a good 750. Now, I had done step running prior to the race, but I had not done step running after running 6 miles. Very different. Step running devolved to step walking rather quickly.

Anyway, it was a good and challenging race. I finished in a touch over 2 hours, of course the folks I was with were much more hardcore than me and finished about 15 minutes ahead of me, but that's fine. Overall I would do the race again, hopefully with better weather. It could stand to be a little more conveniently organized, but the minor hassles fade from memory quickly and good experience lingers.

Part of that good experience is just being in Chicago -- the restaurants, the parks, the museums. It's just about the perfect place for a long weekend. I used to take the train there, but I'm thinking now that driving is better. Partly because I appreciate the luxury of setting my own timetable, but also because it seems the whole pain-in-the-ass parking problem has been solved. Spot Hero to the rescue. You enter your destination, your check-in and check-out time, and it spits out "reservation" options at nearby parking garages. The prices are good. For example: Embassy Suites was going to charge me $60/night for four nights to park, Spot Hero kicked out a quote for a parking garage a half block away at $96 total, a savings of $144. Now, there are caveats: 1) You can't check-in to your parking space early or check out late. In fact, you should give yourself a good cushion on your in and out times. If you enter or leave outside the specified time, your reservation is killed and you will end up paying full price at the garage. I foolish did not give myself enough lead time to account for the time change and had to kill an hour before parking the car. (Luckily, there's a casino in between here and Chicago.) 2) No in and out privileges. In other words this is only for folks who are going to stay parked, which is fine with me. The net result of this is that it brings driving in to the same financial range as the train. Much goodness, this Spot Hero.

Given that it was cold and wet, I didn't do the extensive trolling about that I usually do in Chicago. I hit the main tourist centers -- Navy Pier, Millenium Park, The Art Institute -- and had numerous good meals. Eataly is now open since last I was there. Joe's Stone Crab made me a terrific filet after the race. I snagged one of the world famous, dry-aged burgers at David Burke's Primehouse but was unimpressed. But Chicago is really better in warm weather, when you can bike up the lakeshore to the Lincoln Park Zoo and Wrigleyville, and the fireworks are going off on Navy Pier and the face monoliths at Millenium Park are spitting fountains of water for the kids.

So the first warm weather of 2015 will see me in Chi-town for a three day weekend. Mark it down. But maybe no race this time.

Wednesday, October 08, 2014

The Month That Was - September 2014

Happy birthday to me. 54 laps around the sun. Whoop de do. And, for some reason, every year my birthday roughly coincides with the end of summer. I had plans at the outset back in May, and I managed to get some stuff done, but overall, I think I let this summer slip away more than most. I barely fired-up my grill or crashed on the deck more than two or three times, and I did not get the deck stained. I got a good deal of gardening done, but to no purpose, about 30% of what I planted died or never came up or got eaten by various rodents or, once it did come up, did not have the visual effect that I wanted. So, yeah...not the best of summers for outdoor work.

It was a cool summer, which was kind of nice, and a wet summer which was less nice as it brought weeds and mosquitos and generally gave a soggy, moldy feel to the world. Worse, the coolness and wetness have generated fear: Fear that we will be in for another brutally cold and snowy winter like last year. If that turns out to be the case I may finally move South.

[Music] Quadrophenia
[Movies] Two For the Action
[Health and Fitness] One Tough Mudder
[Books] Book Look: Where Nobody Knows Your Name
[TV, Rant] Do We Not Bleed

[Music] Quadrophenia

Let's take a trip back in time, to the era of classic rock. In the fall of 1973, The Who released their sixth album, Quadrophenia. It was quite a success commercially -- it reached #2 in both the US and UK -- but more importantly it is probably the only rock album conceived as a whole that has appreciated in artistic merit over the years.

When I say conceived as a whole, I mean the entirely of the album is designed for a certain effect or around a certain theme -- conceptual theme, not just commonalities in song titles or genre. The first prominent example of this that I can think of in rock is the Moody Blues Days of Future Passed from 1967. (I know, Sgt. Pepper was from ‘67 but it was never intended to be conceptual. For that matter neither was Abbey Road. The Beatles never did a concept album.)

The Who really glommed on to the idea of such thematics. Their third album, The Who Sell Out, a contemporary of the Moody Blues' Days… was structured as a pirate radio broadcast with jingles and fake commercials in between the songs making it a concept album in a more gimmicky sense, but also contained a short song that was identified as a mini-rock opera. A rock opera was where The Who went next with Tommy three years later.

A rock opera is really just a concept album with a narrative. Tommy was not the first rock opera; there had been a couple released in the late sixties to little acclaim or commercial success. Tommy, in contrast, was an astounding success. I recall "studying" it in Junior High School English class, for some reason. (Probably because all the public school teachers fancied themselves cool rebels who knew what was hip. Now I decry it as dumbing down, but back then I would have had zero interest in, say, Samuel Johnson. Also, get off my lawn.)

Enormous success aside, I don't think Tommy has fared all that well over time. The songs are still good quality pop songs and the hits get plenty of classic rock airplay, but it just doesn't hit home as a piece of art. The theme of the rise and fall of a false god is a little strained. Anyway, gods don't rise anymore, they just fall. The movie featured some interesting covers of the songs, and Ann Margret, but it really just a curiosity more than anything else.

The Who moved on, changing tone entirely to the monumental Who's Next, which is so loaded with enduring classics that it's probably the album you hand to someone from Mars who never heard classic rock. Also it marked a shift to more personal songs. The Who always had anger in their songs, but with Who's Next, the anger became more pointed and personal.

So in that sense, Quadrophenia was sort f the culmination of the development of The Who: An angry, desperate, deeply personal rock opera. The story is somewhat autobiographical: a mod named Jimmy is a standard rebellious working class kid in early 60s England. He is generally a wastrel, hangs out with his wastrel friends, doing wastrel things and such as popping pills and getting in gang fights. Just another disaffected youth. In fact, just the sort of person the The Who played for in their early years as a mod-hero band, and to some extent just the sort of person they were. In fact, Jimmy was described as a young man with for personalities -- Quadrophenia -- each corresponding to a different member of The Who.

The four personalities thing is pretty much unnecessary. Jimmy is a confused adolescent swimming in a sea of hormones and chemicals. Rare is the human male who won't identify. This is a key difference from Tommy. It's not detached allegory, it's something very relatable and genuine.

But the thing that really elevated Quadrophenia was that the story was clarified by the non-musical ephemera that came with it. On the cover was a narrative, written in the voice of Jimmy, in perfect colloquial mod voice -- it was quite lovely. You can read it here. It's a few paragraphs that put you deeper in Jimmy's head and voice for very nice effect. Also in the package was a large photo book, filled with black & whites depicting Jimmy at various points in his journey, that really captured the look and feel of working class England in the early 60s. This youtube vid walks you through the photos. They are really quite astounding.

If this makes it all sound more like a multi-media exercise than a record album, it is; but that's not to say the music is insufficient on its own. The music is a remarkable blend of the standard Who agro-power with what is probably the most melodic and sensitive arrangements they ever achieved and interwoven with moody natural sound effects. It's the sort work you can hear a hundred times and pick up something new every time.

All this is in my head at the moment because I recently saw a documentary about the making of Quadrophenia on Palladia, one the nine million eight hundred and thirty-two channels I get on Charter. (It's actually a couple of years old. I think it aired in 2012 on the BBC.) It was jam packed with interesting details on the state of the Who at that time. To summarize, Keith was so messed up on drugs that he actually collapsed on stage and they brought in someone from the audience who could play a bit of drums to finish the set. Their producer was so messed up on drugs that Pete fired him and took on the entire workload. The workload was so huge because, and this was something I didn't know, Pete's process to create a record was to write the songs and record all the parts on tape at home, the present the entirely to the rest of the band who would interpret it. So basically he was doing everything.

The rest of the band however, did not appreciate that and often bristled, feeling like they were being treated as nothing more than session musicians. It is not the case at all that they were glorified session musicians, of course.There is no way the Who would be what they were without the other personalities and talents -- you don't hire session musicians that can bring such distinction and style as John and Keith had. Roger asserted himself by forbidding Pete to be in the studio when he recorded his vocals. In fact the animus between the two was so great that Pete threw punches at Roger and Roger uppercutted him to floor. More interestingly, Pete was not a fan of Keith's drumming. He wished there were times when he would just keep the beat instead of being a madman. This was bad thinking. When Keith died he was replaced with exactly such a drummer to no good end musically.

And, like the standard rock and roll cliche, out of all this bedlam came a tremendous pile of music. In the words of Pete, "Quadrophenia was the last great album we did."

And great it was. I hope I'm not coloring it with my nostalgia, but I really think when all is said and done and we look back at the second half of the 20th century it will be one of the pieces that stands out as a top ten musical work. So, recommendations: Listen to the album, try to find the ephemera, watch the movie, see the documentary. All worth your time.

[Movies] Two For the Action

It seems the only movies I watch anymore and big budget actioners. Every other genre is done better on TV. So this month I caught Captain America: Winter Soldier and Godzilla (starring Heisenberg). Both of these have astoundingly high production values and follow effective plot formulas. If there is anything the early part of the 21st century might be known for it is the final mastery of the gaudy, big-tent action film. I know a lot of folks think the 80s was the prime time for action movies, but that's wrong. The ‘80s were about adventure movies, a subtly different thing that is less production-, more script-intensive. The salad days for action movies are now. The actual action movies in the ‘80s were abysmal by comparison.

Godzilla is, of course, preposterous. Honestly, I don't think there is a single scene that makes any sense whatsoever. But the action is slam-bang and the monsters all are cool looking. Really, it's good for ages 4-10. Does not deserve a sequel but will almost certainly get one. Maybe Godzilla versus the Transformers. That's about the right speed.

Marvel is really doing a terrific job of recreating the feel and atmosphere of the late sixties, early seventies comic books. Admission: Yes, I was addicted to Marvel comics as a tween. And while not great works of middle-brow art that some hyper-fans claim them to be, the wisecracking, irony-drenched dialogue and storylines deftly structured for the well-timed heroics that filled those 25 cent rags you bought off a spinning wire carousel have had a tremendous influence on Hollywood, stated or otherwise, on the development of action movies over the years, as my generation has come into prominence. Joss Whedon is the king of this and does it better than anyone else. (Anyone my age who watched Buffy couldn't help but notice the Marvel comic tone of the series.) And that's what Winter Soldier is missing -- Whedon's light touch and whip-smart timing.

Don't get me wrong, Winter Soldier is excellent, and a key entry in Marvel movie mythology as they try to reproduce the comics universe on film. I happen to to think Chris Evans pulls off this role just astoundingly well -- if Captain America lives on well into the future, his portrayal will be definitive. But it lacks the joy, energy, and uplift of the best of the genre -- that would be The Avengers, with Thor:Dark World, and a pastiche of Iron Mans close behind. No one has yet matched Joss Whedon at this game.

Winter Soldier is very worth seeing. Godzilla not so much. But stand in awe of the great accomplishment of my generation -- Action Film Mastery. Hey, at least it's somethin'.

[Health and Fitness] One Tough Mudder

After a particularly strenuous workout, it is typically two days before the pain hits me. It's a thing I can't explain, but the debilitating soreness that comes arrives the day after the day after. The day after Tough Mudder I was feeling OK. The day after the day after I felt like I had been hit by a truck. Just rising from bed in the morning required a re-evaluation of my entire existence to see if it was worth continuing.

Tough Mudder is one brand, maybe the premier, of obstacle course/race that have been growing in popularity in the fitness industry for quite some time now. They range from things like mud runs -- which are exactly what they sound like, runs through the mud for fun -- to races with a few playground style obstacles, to full on military style challenge courses like Tough Mudder or it's comparable, Spartan Race.

Tough Mudder is team oriented. You can do it yourself, but there are obstacles that you would have to be super-human to complete on your own. Still, it's OK to go alone, because part of the attraction of Tough Mudder is teamwork and a culture of assisting others. In fact, at the outset of the race you recite a vow to assist others, so even if you were to go alone, you wouldn't be alone. I was with a team.

From the outset it should be noted that these are serious obstacles, patterned after those used by British Special Forces. This is not a coast through the playground. Crawling through the mud doesn't mean trying not to fall as you run through. It means crawling through the mud, under barbed wire. A water obstacle is not wading through a lake, it's jumping fifteen feet off a platform or dunking yourself in an ice bath. And let's not forget the electrocution: the last challenge is a dash through a mesh of wire that deliver electric shocks of varying degrees of pain. They range from a quick and painful snap to an out right stun that will drop you on your face. In the mud.

All these are spread across a 13 mile course, so you essentially cover the distance of a half-marathon.

Why would anybody do that to themselves? It's a good question. The pat answer is for the challenge -- just to see if you can. During the course of the race you feel like you were really quite stupid to pay money to do this to yourself. I came out of it scratched and bruised and I got slammed with a head cold in the next few days which could easily have come from god-knows-what germs in the mud. And yet, as soon as it was over, I vowed to do it again.

There is no clock in Tough Mudder. And you can skip any obstacles you'd like, but I didn't see a lot of skipping going on. The idea is to get everyone to finish, strangers assisting strangers: build a human pyramid, get dragged over the wall, then pay it forward. It all sounds very gosh-oh-golly touchy-feely but it's absolutely brutal. Assisting and/or being assisted isn't an act of charity, it's a necessity. The end result is that no matter what happens during the race, by the end it's a positive experience full of genuine camaraderie. I'm quite proud that no member on my team skipped an obstacle and we ran between all of them. I'm anxious to repeat the performance next year.

But I'll schedule days off for after.

[Books] Book Look: Where Nobody Knows Your Name, by John Feinstein

It's probably natural that as it becomes less and less likely that I will achieve anything the world would consider some sort of greatness, I become attracted to stories of unsung perseverance. Unsung perseverance is the definition of minor league baseball.

Where Nobody Knows Your Name is simply an overview of lives in the minors. You can think of it as a nonfiction companion to Bull Durham if that helps. The premise is simple. Feinstein tells the stories of numerous minor leaguers over the course of one season, covering their backgrounds and their hopes. He covers players, managers, and even an umpire; youngsters on the way up, oldsters on the way down, lifers who see no alternatives, guys trying to have no regrets. The entire spectrum is on display.

Feinstein is a drop dead professional sports journalist and it comes through in his writing which is clear as a bell and effortless to follow. He knows who he's writing for and does not talk up or down to them. The craft of a working writer is in evidence by it's invisibility. If there is a criticism it's the the individual stories can get repetitive, but that's life in the minors: nobody wants to be there, everyone is keeping the faith -- everything else is nuance. This is life happening to those making other plans.

Should you read Where Nobody Knows Your Name? If you like baseball, then yes. Whether these stories would resonate to someone without the proper context is more of a crap shoot. Being on the far side of your lifespan might give you some empathy, after all a lot of these guys are on the far side of their baseball lives and coming to terms with the knowledge that time is up for those childhood dreams, and options for the future are thinning. Hard to imagine anyone over 50 not relating to that.

[TV, Rant] Do We Not Bleed

Megan McCardle mirrors my feelings about the poor state of TV, specifically through the lens of the current fashion of period drama:
"The thing I find harder to forgive is the shows' inability to commit to that drama -- to try to actually engage with what was actually dramatic and interesting in those eras. They can't resist moralizing from the point of view of a 21st-century modern -- and so they sap the conflicts they're portraying of their meaning. Every poor person lives in unmitigated squalor; every person who is not poor is grotesquely oblivious or spouts absurd social Darwinist dogma. Race and gender relations are handled with the subtlety and gripping realism of an ABC Afterschool Special, and every likable woman must, of course, at least secretly aspire to work outside the home. In period dramas, the personal is always, always political."
This is what I was getting at in my previous look at Mad Men. No one short of Matt Weiner really has a grip on personal drama. To the rest of the world, drama consists conflict between socio-political stereotypes. It's painfully empty, and it's the reason why shows like Masters of Sex and The Knick, despite their promising premises, don't measure up to the great shows of the previous decade. The time of quality TV drama has passed for good.

In a bigger sense this is a by-product of the arrogance of our age. It's a great sneer at the previous generations who lacked wisdom and understanding of the current pack of pop-cultural elites. They portray the past as full of demonic sociological cliches to exalt the myth of their own progress and greatness. Whether it is true or not that this era is better than the preceding ones (for the record, my opinion is that it is but, other than technologically, not by very much) you can't help but gag at the hubris.

Related: This essay in Dissent touches similar themes from a workplace perspective -- how all novels of the workplace are really about workplace politics, not work itself, and they enter into the whole enterprise with the planted assumption that corporate existence is soul-crushing and empty. I don't think it's irrelevant to point out that your basic novelist would have no bloody idea what corporate life is like, and many have little understanding of how anyone can live a fulfilled life who doesn't spend their free time in the bistros of the Upper West Side. Sneer-meisters.

Tangential speculation: Speaking of sneering, I have always sneered at reality TV, and I still do at the sort that aims to manufacture celebrities out of attention whoring dirtbags. But then there is the "real jobs" style of reality TV that at least presumes to dramatize the workaday activities of normal people. (I say "dramatize" because we all know that "reality" TV is pretty thoroughly planned if not outright scripted.) Perhaps these shows are an awkward step at filling the desire for folks to see personal life, instead of editorializing and moral condescension.

Wednesday, September 03, 2014

The Month That Was - August 2014

Well, that was a short summer. I think I fired up my grill a total of three times. I continued to wrestle with my garden, but I have high hopes for next year. Hornet infestations became a habit.  I have an ever growing fear of another terrible winter. Other than that, there not much new to report. Oh, I did get a new car [grin] -- story below.

[Cars] The Wheels Go Round and Round
[Books] Book Look: Your Face Tomorrow: Fever and Spear
[Books] Book Look: A Thousand Pounds of Dynamite
[Rant] The Young'ns Don't Understand

[Cars] The Wheels Go Round and Round

This month I bid farewell to my trusty Camry. 12 years, 195,000 miles. Oddly, I never got all that emotionally attached to it. It wasn't the revelation of quality that my previous Camry was, in fact, it was not even as good a car; it's primary advantage came from improved rust protection that allowed it to last a bit longer. It wasn't as solid, although it was equally reliable, that is to say utterly dependable in all circumstances. Nevertheless, it served me well, and deserves as much gratitude as any machine. Sayonara, my friend!

Interestingly, the thing that put me in the market seriously was that it started burning oil at a rate of about a quart every 500-1000 miles. I deemed this unacceptable, although the net cost in oil would have been $60 a year, and, as I have since discovered, in some cars burning oil like that is expected. I believe a Mini, for example, is expected to burn a quart every 1000-1500 miles when new.

In what I consider to be my adult life I had owned exactly three cars:

(1) an ‘84 Toyota Celica ST. A perfect college and 20-something car. A sweet and sporty little thing with AM/FM radio (no cassette, CDs had yet to be invented), power nothing, and no a/c. The drivetrain was sweet though: a fuel injected 22re engine and a 5-speed. I drove it all over the country listening to whatever meager radio stations I could get and sweltering in the unconditioned air. These car were wildly underappreciated in their day -- if I still had it and it was in reasonable condition I could get serious scratch for it from the Fast & Furious crowd. I think I got 180,000 miles out of it. Rust was getting the best of it at the end, though.

(2) a ‘93 Camry LE. After the elemental experience of the Celica this thing was a revelation. Built just as Toyota was gearing up the Lexus marque there were all sorts of trickle down quality benefits. Driving this car was like driving a tomb -- it was dead silent and air tight. Never a squeak or a rattle, virtually no road or wind noise, road like a magic carpet. It really gave the impression that it wasn't so much assembled as carved out of a block of granite. This one lasted 180,000 also. Only starting to rust around the wheel wells at the end. I don't even remember why I sold it.

(3) an ‘02 Camry LE. The above mentioned car. I purchased this online through autobytel.com. At the time I was exclusively looking for Camrys because of my great experience with the previous one. This one, however, was not quite so astounding. There was a squeak in the dash that took a couple of visits to the dealer to resolve and a rattle in the door that I just lived with. It rode very smoothly -- a thing I rediscovered whenever I returned to it from stretch in a rental car -- but that seemed to be due to cushioning and soft springs as opposed to solid construction. Handling was loose as a goose, but predictably so. It had no discernable rust, even at 195,000 miles. And when I went back into to car market, it was good enough to let me take my time and find the right next car without feeling like I had to get out of it before there was any real trouble. But it was not so head and shoulders above other cars that I felt the need to restrict myself to another Camry, or even another Toyota.

I spent the last couple of months trolling car dealerships on Sunday afternoon when the salesmen weren't around -- getting sticker shock out of the way, checking out what was available, looking for good deals. For a short time I was leaning toward getting a CUV and test drove a Honda CRV and a Nissan Rogue, the idea being I could load them up with stuff from Lowe's as needed, or just throw my bike in the back instead of hitching up a rack. But while they were certainly nice, and the low end ones were inexpensive (only about 10% higher than what I paid for the Camry 12 years ago) I just didn't think I could get comfortable in them. They felt tippy and a little awkward, and the carrying capacity was not really that much greater than a sedan, just more convenient.

Then one Sunday I stopped by the Acura dealer and saw a lovely dark red TL. New, this car would have been out of my price range, but this was certified used 2014 (it had been a loaner vehicle) with 12,000 miles. The price on the window was still out of my price range, but it was about 25% off the new car price. I suspected I could get it dropped even more. So the following Tuesday I wandered into the dealership.

The car was as fine as I suspected. (If you didn't know, Acura is to Honda as Lexus is to Toyota as Infiniti is to Nissan.) It had all the trimmings (nav, bluetooth, Sirius, back-up camera), strong V6 engine. I made an offer at less than my max, of course. There was some back and forth and I came up a little beyond my max as far as dollar amount, but I demanded extended warranties and maintenance in exchange. We left it there and exchanged contact info. I figured I would sleep on it and decide the next morning if I just had to have that car, and if I did, just give in and call them back (really, the dollar difference was not that much). But, I did not. I decided to wait it out, knowing full well my Camry could carry me through for months until I found another deal I liked. Sure enough, by the end of the week I got the call from them to come back and talk some more. I went in expecting to fight, but they just accepted my previous offer. I took delivery within an 90 minutes.

So the fourth car of my adult life is a 2014 Acura TL with the Tech Package. It's not as quiet or soft riding as a Camry, but it's not supposed to be. It's target personality is a bit more sporting. You can feel the road and hear the engine. The steering is precise and firm. It's a different experience from the Camrys I've driven but not at all harsh or unpleasant, and I could use more change in my life. Not driving a Camry, for me, means not feeling like my car will be totally reliable no matter what, but there are a number of things that mitigate that worry. Acura is not exactly a slouch in the quality department and the TL is well into it's model run (it's being replaced for 2015). It's based on the proven Honda Accord platform, in fact you can think of it as about the highest-end Honda Accord ever made. I got 7 year/100,000 mile warranty bumper-to-bumper, not just on the drivetrain, and five years on wheel and tire replacement. I also got 3 year/36,000 mile scheduled maintenance thrown in for good measure. Acura considers itself a high-end auto marque so I get a loaner anything that's going to take over an hour, and oil changes include free washing and vacuuming and other gold-plated service stuff. Basically, pretty much anything that happens I can just roll into the dealership and let them handle it.

I'm pretty happy. I'd like to get 15 years and 250k out of it. That would take me to age 68. After that Google should be driving my car for me.

[Books] Book Look: Your Face Tomorrow: Fever and Spear (Vol. 1), by Javier Marias

This one was a real struggle. I came close to bailing on a number of occasions. Your Face Tomorrow: Fever and Spear is billed as a sort of intellectual thriller, and it may be that as it moves into the remainder of the trilogy, but any expectations you have of intrigue need to be dialed down. The action is barely perceptible, and when I say “action" I don't mean action as in movie stunts, I mean action as in anybody actually doing anything outside talking and thinking.

Jacques Deza is a divorced man living in Oxford England, estranged from his ex-wife and family in Spain. He is recruited by a mysterious association that values his ability to read people with extreme accuracy, to the point of identifying likely future outcomes -- whether a person will succeed or fail at a given task, whether someone is capable of murder, etc. “Your face tomorrow" refers to seeing your future.

In the course of the book we meet Deza, get some background on him, meet his mentor/patron, Peter Wheeler, and follow his recruitment. Not a lot of activity there; one presumes it's set up for the sequels, but it's not the lack of action that directly causes the difficulty. Marias is simply the most long winded writer I have ever encountered. Every observation, however slight, is eligible for endless scrutiny; pages and pages of digression on the human condition flow from the tiniest of details. The effect, I gather, is supposed to be Proustian as we spiral away into novella length distractions. Or perhaps it is part and parcel with idea that this fellow Deza can see so broadly and deeply, and infer so much, based on seemingly unimportant particulars. While I acknowledge the fluidity of Marias prose and I appreciate that Omit Needless Words can be set aside for aesthetic purposes, there is such a thing as going too far.

And yet, there is good content. Deza's extended rumination on the state of his family and his estrangement reeks of a fearful, lonely humanity. And both Deza and Wheeler continue to be haunted by the past, including a common connection to the Spanish Civil War, in a way that makes it clear that the greater, more seminal idea is that the past never leaves us, which is illustrated very compellingly. But the last third of the book is an extended digression/rumination on how talk is necessarily interwoven into the human condition almost to the point where I suspected obsessive-compulsive disorder may be at work.  It was exhausting.

Should you read Your Face Tomorrow: Fever and Spear? I have to say no. There are rewards, but there is such a high price in time and effort to get them, the payoff falls short. Much of what I have read about Marias suggest that he is thought of in some circles as a preeminent literary master. Fair enough. My impression is that his interest lies entirely in the realm of the mind and since a novelist's job is to understand and display his realm, he doesn't hesitate to let every detail loose. This is probably the sort of thing that folks in academia and those with a more esoteric sense of the novel appreciate. I doubt you are one of them. I don't think I am either.

[Books] Book Look: A Thousand Pounds of Dynamite, by Adam Higgenbotham

Slam Bam Wow! In what is a complete turnabout from the previous book, A Thousand Pounds of Dynamite reads like its title. This is the story of a violent and disgruntled man with nothing to lose. He hatches a plan to extort a casino in Lake Tahoe, one to which he owes a fair amount of money, by planting an enormous bomb and demanding 2 million dollars to disable it. It's a true story that plays out like an insanely well-paced action movie.

You can get a short, very unsatisfying, summary from Wikipedia, but you're better off picking up the book. Well, it's not really a book -- it's an Amazon Single -- short works that are too long to be considered longform journalism, but too short for a book. In this case it's about 70 pages for $2.99. That's a couple hours of fine entertainment for less than a latte.

It's a fascinating story just to see how the plot proceeds, how it falls apart, and how the bad guys are finally caught. Very well done. The prose a blunt and occasionally ungraceful, but that's like complaining about a lack of witty repartee in an Expendables film. After slogging through the Javier Marias book above, I was refreshed by the straightforward way it held me rapt without presuming on my time and attention.

Should you read A Thousand Pounds of Dynamite? Yes, for sure. Read it now and you'll get to say "Oh yeah, I read the book" when it comes out in a year or two starring Bradley Cooper.

Aside: The bombing occurred in August of 1980, and it was certainly all over the news outlets at the time, yet I had no recollection of it until I stumbled across this. I would have been a month shy of my 20th birthday and at the end of what was certainly a lazy summer in Ann Arbor after my sophomore year, getting ready to move into my new digs across the street from Zingerman's Deli. I must have been completely detached from any external reality.

[Rant] The Young'ns Don't Understand

In this post, Robin Hanson, at the indispensible Overcoming Bias, is worried about intergenerational conflict (a Generation Gap, to those of us old enough to remember that phrase):
New generations often act not just like the same people thrust into new situations, but like new kinds of people with new attitudes and preferences. This has often intensified intergenerational conflicts; generations have argued not only about who should consume and control what, but also about which generational values should dominate.
He posits that the rapid rate of societal change in the future in conjunction with longer lifespans will exacerbate intergenerational conflict. He goes on to suggest in the far, far future we will be inclined to employ artificial intelligence to run things so as to minimize problems. (Note 1: For most people this sounds like the ranting of an Internet crank, but this is Hanson's thing and he's well renowned for it. He's given a tremendous amount of thought to the far future and worked to build logical arguments based on plausible assumptions to reach his conclusions. Mostly you are right to ignore such rantings you happen across on the web but it's worth stifling your bs detector and get beyond dismissing this one out of hand.) (Note 2: It's interesting that he thinks we will yield to AI in the future, yet previously he seemed to suggest we don't have the socio-political capability to accept driverless cars. Hmmm.)

My issues with this post are not the Artificial Intelligence argument, to which I have nothing to add, but the assumption the rapid change and extended lifespans necessarily lead to greater generational conflict. I'm not so sure. None of these counter arguments I'm about to give have any objective analysis behind them, or are anything much more valuable than anecdote, but I offer them anyway.

In my lifetime, lifespans have gotten longer and the rate of technological change has increased, but it seems to me generational differences have decreased or at least not increased. Or perhaps not increased so much as not been a huge source of conflict. No, I do not have any hard data on this (does such exist?), beyond a survey from Pew Research and this chart of the trend in party identification (for whatever that's worth), but I think you'd be hard pressed to find anything more compelling to suggest the opposite.

Now, Robin's timeframe is much longer than one lifetime. I would be very interested in historical data and theories on the correlations and causation of generation value shifts (if such data exists). And, of course, my view is US centric. It could be that our current time and place is insulated by relative affluence: "I don't care what the old folks do as long as I have XBox." Perhaps intergenerational value conflicts become more pronounced in times of need?

Despite that, I would argue that unless there is some drastic change, cross-cultural value conflicts will utterly swamp cross-generational ones at any given level of wealth, and act as a binding force for people of all ages within a single culture despite their generational differences. The enemy of my enemy, and so forth.

Friday, August 08, 2014

The Month That Was - July 2014

You get one of my longest trip reports ever. Lucky you. Apart from that my projects are still my projects and are progressing at their usual glacial pace.

The next book, more likely novella, is staggering along and I would place myself at about 30% done with the first draft.

I still don't have a new car, but I actually came close: I test drove a Honda CRx and didn't like it all that much, which is a shame because I was ready to go on it. The ride was a bit down from my now 12 year old Camry and it seemed a bit hobby-horsey over bumps. More test drives will put it in perspective.

Did a good bit of gardening; I estimate 50% of everything I plant doesn't survive. So does that make the garden half alive or half dead? Got a small hornet's nest removed from under the deck. I have not used my grill enough and have vowed to use it more.

Same ol' same ol'.

[Travel] Trip Report: Bryce and Zion and Vegas, Oh My
[Vegas] Where Should I Stay in Vegas?
[Rant] Snapchat is Scary
[TV] Flipping Channels

[Travel] Trip Report: Bryce and Zion and Vegas, Oh My

It had been a couple of years since I went out west during the summer.  Turns out, it's hot out there.  I mean really hot.  I saw 108 on a couple of days, but they had been getting over 110.  Saying it's a dry heat doesn't make it any better when it's that high.

So here was the itinerary:
Day 1: Fly to Vegas and rent car.  Drive 4 hours north to Bryce Canyon.
Day 2: Run Bryce Canyon Half Marathon
Day 3: Drive 2 hours to Zion.  Recover from Half Marathon
Day 4: Hike the Narrows
Day 5: Drive 2 hours to Vegas.
Day 6: Vegas, Vegas, Vegas.
Day 7: A little more Vegas.  Red-eye home.

Things didn't start terribly well, and it was mostly a matter of attitude, as is the great bulk of life.  Flight went well, but I was anxious about everything.  Like I said, just a mood, but a real one.  I had read there was going to be hour-plus delays going north out of Vegas and I had to register for my race by that evening.  I had given myself about a four hour cushion but that didn't ease my (unreasonable) tension over this.  Then the a/c in the car stopped -- no the a/c was fine, the fan just stopped blowing cold air. Did I mention the temp was in the triple digits.  This happened a number of times after extended high-speed driving (the speed limit on some stretches of freeway in Utah is 80).  I don't know why it happened and after some slow speed driving it would come back on, but it certainly kicked up my anxiety.  By the time it happened I was hundreds of miles from the rental center, well into southern Utah so going back to return the car was not feasible.  (It was a Hyundai Sonata and as a result I have scratched the car of my list of potential purchases.)

I checked into my hotel outside Bryce and of course the wi-fi didn't work.  Honestly, it amazes me what a horrendous job hotels do with wi-fi.  This has been the case for years and it has only gotten marginally better.  “Free wi-fi" often means they have a router set up under the front desk and you might be able to connect from nearby rooms on a good day.  And if you can't connect don't bother asking for help; Joe minimum wage behind the desk likely doesn;t know what a router is. Grrrr.  Despite everything, I picked up my race packet with about four hours of my four hour cushion to spare.  Still didn't really ease my tension.

The next morning I was up before the sun and prepped for the race.  I must say it was one of the coolest starts I have ever experienced.  It was actually chilly just before dawn -- in the 50s, about half of what it would be later in the day.  The starting area was lit by a series of bonfires that looked quite startlingly beautiful.  The start itself was punctuated by a small fireworks display.  The race started off with a flat mile, then a fairly steep downhill plunge for about 6 miles to the small town of Tropic, then another less steep downhill to finish line in the town of Cannonville where they had set out all the chocolate milk you could drink.

The first half of the run was about perfect. Towering red rock formations on the right, just getting hit by the low angled sun.  To the left was the stark big sky landscape of the West.  If you are a runner, you know you‘ve always had a vision in your head of that perfect run -- the one where you feel like you're just flying effortlessly through some exquisitely beautiful landscape.  The first half of this run is exactly that.  Wings on you feet, stars in your eyes.  The second half isn't too bad either, but you're past the red rocks and, for me anyway, anything beyond 9 or 10 miles becomes a question of survival.  I'd love to do the race again next year, but there are always logistical and expense issues when that distance is involved.

And despite the passing bliss at the start of the race, I was still feeling all struggly.  After lunch I hopped in the car and headed towards Escalante and Grand Staircase National Monument (about 30 miles)  to do the hike to Lower Calf Creek Falls.  It was only a 3 mile hike so I just wore shorts and sandals; no special gear. Upon arrival the ranger came out to let me and couple of other people know that he did not recommend hiking without close-toed shoes because the the temperature of the sand on the trail was 159 degrees (did I mention it was hot?).  Considering my feet were still tender from the race I decided not to test his measurement, and spent considerable time cursing myself for neglecting to throw my day hikers in the trunk before I left.

So I turned back -- the road to Grand Staircase National Monument is lovely -- it's a national scenic route (or whatever the official title is) and I was able to get some decent photos -- but I grumbled at myself the whole way.  Finally, almost back to Bryce, there is a small hiking trail right off the road that I had passed during the race. It's called the Mossy Cave Trail so I expected a short trail to a cave of some mossiness.  What I got was the coolest thing; a short walk along a creek, terminating in a waterfall -- a waterfall that you could actually walk under and splash around in the pool.  It was exactly what I needed.  It was cool and refreshing on my half-marathon-weary body.  Most of all it was a beautiful surprise.  It had been so long since I had a special travel moment like that, that I had forgotten about how exhilarating it could be to just accidently stumble across something so perfect, just when I needed it.  I was OK at that point.  Attitude adjusted.  I was on vacation for real.

A word about the Bryce Canyon area.  Although it's heavily touristed, it's relatively backwards in many respects.  There are no good restaurants or above average hotels.  Best Western would be the top hotel, although I am sure there are some B&Bs that have some nice features.  Ruby's Inn is probably the nicest restaurant and I would say it's about on par with a mid-range chain restaurant like, say, Chilis.  There is a lot of Old West theme kitsch, all of it non-ironic, which is almost precious.  There are no bars or nightlife and minimal alcohol anywhere, which I attribute to a combination of family values and Mormon influence.  But everything is clean and friendly and the service is sharp and nothing is overly expensive.  You can't help but like it, and admire the stripe of folks who live there.  Still, I would have loved to have a nightcap at a quiet bar somewhere the night before I left.

So the next morning I was up and out and headed for Zion, and doing it over what is probably the most beautiful road I have ever driven.  Because of the problem with the damn fan in the damn Hyundai, I resolved to take the scenic route out of Bryce and that means the legendary road from Panguitch through Cedar Breaks to Brian Head.  You wind through forests mountains past Lake Panguitch -- an exquisitely beautiful recreation point deep in the Utah woods where fishing and camping and the whole slate of outdoorsy activities occur.  Then you go higher, where you reach Inspiration Point (if you remember the Fonz and Happy Days you're giggling now) -- a turn off with a great view of the surroundings, but you will be chased off in short order by swarms of black flies.  You keep going higher, eventually reaching Brian Head Peak (that's singular, not Brian's Head, which you will certainly read as Brain Head, which only makes slightly more sense than Brian Head), the highest peak in the area, where you can drive up a short dirt road to the summit and get even better views, until the bees and hornets chase you away.  Despite the insect assaults, driving this road is really a one of a kind experience, and up high in the mountains the temperature is a beautifully reasonable 70 degrees with a fresh breeze.

From there the road cascades back down to Springdale and triple digits.  Damn, it was hot. The heat may be dry, but then so is a sauna.  And the sun is abusive. The first thing I did in Springdale is buy a Tilley Hat.  Don't know how often I will wear it, but it's supposed to last forever, and frankly, in the oven of southern Utah, a baseball cap just didn't seem to be serious enough.

The second thing I did was rent a pair of canyoneering shoes, neoprene socks, and a walking stick because I was going to hike The Narrows the next day. But first a word about Springdale.

Springdale is the gateway town to Zion National Park.  It is a good deal more upscale than Bryce, in fact there a a couple of near luxury hotels and more than a few good restaurants, with bars.  The commercial activity is built up along the road that leads to Zion; it's all hotels, restaurants, outfitters, and gift shops, but it's clearly controlled for aesthetic purposes.  There is no neon, no garishness, everything is set back from the road enough for a nice sidewalk giving easy foot access to most of it.  At this time of year, the bulk of Zion national Park is inaccessible by car.  The park is so busy that during high season they simply shut down the park road to everything except shuttle busses. You can park at the visitor center just inside the entrance but even that gets filled up by mid-morning so they take it a step further by having a shuttle that runs back and forth through Springdale that stops in front of most hotels that takes you into the park to get the park shuttle from there. So if you are staying in Springdale, you can pretty much park you car at your hotel and forget about it.  If you are driving in from elsewhere, you can park anywhere in Springdale and grab the shuttle.  Shuttle service and parking is free everywhere and it looks to be very efficient.  It's really one of the most intelligent systems of mass transport I have encountered.  Once again I am impressed with Utah and Utahans.

So, The Narrows.  This is one of two paradigmatic hikes in Zion (the other being the climb to Angel's landing, and don't get me started on that one).  This is a river hike, the Virgin River to be exact, which is to say a good deal of you hiking involves literally walking in the river.  Most of it involves ankle to knee deep water but for certain stretches the water can reach waist/chest high.  You could walk through the water the whole way but that gets quite time consuming because you just can't walk very fast through water, and since the full hike is ten miles round trip you do need to keep up at least a steady pace, so you end up doing a series of extended river crossing to get from bank to bank and then try to hike briskly along the bank as far as you can.  What's special about this hike is that you are travelling through a narrow canyon with walls hundreds of feet tall on either side of you.  A couple of miles up you reach a stretch known as Wall Street where the walls start to close in on you, getting as close as 40 feet apart, which is an eerie sensation.  You get sunlight for about half an hour around high noon, other than that the light is ambient which is nice because it keeps things cool.  Also in Wall Street there are no banks to speak of. If the water is high you are swimming.  If there's a flash flood you're in deep trouble.  You keep hiking up to about the five mile mark where there is a pretty little spring fed waterfall area where to can sit and eat your trail mix and recoup some strength because at this point you have to turn around and walk back.  It is technically possible to go further, but you need a back-country permit and, from my understanding, there is not that much to see further on.

The hike need not be strenuous.  You could just amble in the river for a mile or so in your sandals, take a cool swim, get some sun if you time it right, then turn around and go back.  A great deal of folks and bring their families and do just that.  The first mile or so of the river can be quite crowded, but the crowds drop away quickly as you go further.  The full hike is exhausting, primarily because although it is ten miles, the winding path you have to take back and forth across the river has to add another mile or two.  Not to mention it's a mile walk (on a paved path) from the shuttle to the river and then back to the shuttle.  I suspect the distance covered is closer to 15 miles, and the fact is for the bulk of it you are navigating uneven surfaces and precariously slippery underwater rock footing.  So yes, the full round trip is exhausting.  I know this because I was exhausted.

But I did good.  I made it all the way and as I was returning to the river entry point, where everyone has their kids and they are all splashing around in the river I was feeling a little smug about being a badass hiker in my canyoneering shoes and Tilley hat amidst all these folks who were just goofing around in the river.  Then not 100 yards from the exit, I slipped on a rock and face-planted in the water, in the process losing my $5.99 gas station sunglasses and getting a sarcastic round of applause from onlookers.  I'm so awesome.

The next morning I was up on the road again, this time back to good ol' Vegas.  No scenic road here, just a 2 hour freeway ass-hauling. Luckily the Hyundai fan held up OK so I was able to stay comfortably cool in the desert heat, and before I knew it I was pulling into the Hilton Grand Vacation Club at the Flamingo just off Las Vegas Blvd. There are few greater contrasts than going from wilderness beauty and little Utah towns to the Las Vegas Strip.  I love them both.

I have lost track of how many times I've been to Vegas.  Somewhere between 15 and 20.  The nice thing for me is that while I have my favorite spots to revisit, there is always something new to try.  Vegas is in a perpetual state of remaking itself.  The place getting the most extreme makeover right now is the Fremont Street area downtown.  Fremont Street (also called the Fremont Street Experience) is a section of town north of the Strip, where the street is closed off and it takes on the flavor of a smaller version of Bourbon St. in New Orleans.  Along the street are hotels, restaurants, souvenir shops, and so forth.  Arcing over the length of the street is the worlds largest electric sign, called Viva Vision, which display fairly impressive animated sequences set to music at the top of every hour after dark.  Up until now, had exactly one nice hotel -- the Golden Nugget -- which is probably on the level of an upper-mid level Strip hotel.  The remaining hotel and casinos, though some were storied such as Binion's, were the very definition of seedy.

That has changed recently.  Although there has been a longtime push to upgrade the area, it wasn't until Zappo's moved it's headquarters nearby that things kicked into high gear.  Tony Hsieh, the CEO of Zappo's, has taken the lead in getting things built up and cleaned up, gentrifying the place for his employees.  Also, two of the old seedy hotels have completely revamped and improved.  One called the Fitzgerald was remade into The D and has become the darling of some Vegas insiders because of it's minimal nonsense approach.  The D is not really themed, although they often say the are Detroit themed because the owners have Detroit roots and they have installed an American Coney Island, the first one outside the Detroit area.  It's a huge upgrade from the old Fitzgerald's and it's location makes it the centerpiece of the new Fremont Street.  Another old warhorse, the Lady Luck, just off Fremont, was remade into the Downtown Grand and has tried to bring some Strip level stylishness downtown, with mixed results.

It's not just hotels.  A hidden bar called the Laundry Room gained cache by requiring you to text a secret phone number for a reservation.  Once admitted you are treated to high-end craft cocktails from some of the best bartenders in Vegas.  Golden Nugget has a very clever pool area that is integrated with an aquarium that can make it feel like you're swimming with sharks.  The Andiamo steakhouse at the D is getting a great reputation.  And now there is a zip line ride under the canopy that starts at the top of a 100 ft tall slot machine called Slotzilla.

And the growth has spread.  Fremont Street East, the couple of blocks east beyond Viva.  There is the El Cortez, a low end casino that has a great rep with gamblers because of the better payoff tables.  A number of dive bars, including Atomic Liquors that was featured by Anthony Bourdain on one of his shows.  And a relatively new section called Container Park -- an area filled with shipping containers that contain food truck-y sorts of spots and little stores.  It is guarded out front by a giant metal praying mantis sculpture that appears to be primed to attack slotzilla.

Peppered throughout all the are sound stages with bands playing, often quite good bands, or in the case of the night I spent there, an Elvis impersonator, and a good one.  Like I said, it's very Bourbon Street in its vibe.  Fremont goes on the must visit list for all future trips.  It's a cab ride to get there, and all Vegas cabbies are on the make, but that won't stop me.  Still, I don't think I'll bed down there.  Dinner and some bar hopping after is about right.  I'll still lay my head down on the Strip.

This time I lay my head down at the Hilton Grand Vacation Club at the Flamingo. It was a good choice.  Hilton Grand Vacation Clubs are points based timeshares, that have always been tempting to me for reasons I won't get into right now, but they also function as good quality hotels when they have vacancies. There are actually three of these right on the Strip.  One is the Elara, where I have stayed before, another is further north up by Circus Circus, which I am told is beautiful, but it really is kind of in no man's land.  These are the type of property I have come to appreciate over the years: the non-casino hotel that is just barely off the Strip.  They tend to be low-key oases that still give you ready access to the madness.  In this class I would place Signature, Vdara, Elara, HGVC - Flamingo.  Also possibly Delano (formerly theHotel), Four Seasons, and Trump, all of which I have yet to try (maybe in the fall).  (See below about where a newby should stay.)

HGVC - Flamingo has nicely appointed rooms with mini-fridges and newish furnishings.  You have access to the Flamingo Pool and all the Flamingo services, but it also has it's own smaller pool.  Friendly staff.  A gift shop where the sundries are not too overpriced -- $2.50 for a Diet Coke instead of $4 as is typical in Vegas.  They even have special spaces reserved in the Flamingo garage just for HGVC guests.  It's about a two minute walk from the lobby to the valet entrance of Flamingo, then through Flamingo to the Strip into the LinQ.  The room rate is comparable to the Flamingo generally, and unless you have some sort of financial incentive, I can see no reason to stay at the Flamingo proper instead of the HGVC - Flamingo.  Recommended.

Which brings us to the LinQ, the newest area of the Strip.  It is an open air mall that extends from the Strip east about 300 yards, terminating in the new observation wheel.  It is filled with shops and bars and clever bits of art and displays and, I would guess, street performers or proper bands.  It replaces the odd mishmash of booths near the Carnival Court, which had little to recommend it and just created an annoyance to walk around.  The observation wheel creates a terrific backdrop, especially lit up at night, and, although I didn't ride it, it looks to be uncrowded. Definitely an upgrade.

The final new thing I tried in Vegas is Giada at the Cromwell.  The Cromwell itself is relatively new.  It's the old Bill's Gambling Hall converted into a high end hipster palace.  It clearly a nice place, and of course it has just about the best location in the universe, right at the corner of Flamingo and Las Vegas Blvd.  I may try to stay one day, but it's awfully pricey.  The signature restaurant is Giada's, named for the Food Network star and beauty icon Giada de Laurentiis.  They had been open for dinner for a few weeks, but I managed to snag a seat for the first ever lunch service.  It's billed as Italian with a California twist and it's very good; various Italian dishes with fresh ingredients.  It is overpriced of course, but no more so than every other glamourous Vegas restaurant.  Thinking of putting it on my short list for repeat visits.

And that was about it.  I did my standard pre-red eye visit to Qua spa at Caesars then on home where I wisely took the following day off work to reset.  It was a vacation of contrasts and it reminded me that even on my most well trodden paths there are new things to be discovered.  In a few years, maybe I'll come back and do it all again.