Saturday, February 08, 2014

The Month That Was - January 2014

The Month That Was - January 2014: Man is it cold. I mean ludicrously cold. Sub zeros. Multiple feet of snow. This either proves or disproves global warming -- or perhaps both. You know what the worst part is? I got suckered into signing up for a half-marathon at the end of March, so I have to go out and train in this ice-covered deep freeze. Lesson for life: never sign up for a long race until after May. Unless it's in Florida.

Beyond the cold, it's been a rough start to 2014. I cracked a tooth and needed an emergency cap. A stomach ailment that I had last summer, and which the doctors couldn't identify before it disappeared on it's own seem to be back. I have regular old man aches and pains, including a bad one in my hip. When you pile up all the crap and top it with a polar vortex, it makes you want to stay in bed until it's all over. I'm beginning to appreciate my mammalian cousins who hibernate through this sort of thing.

A triple hit of TV reviews this month. I should probably save some for later when I can't think of anything to write about, but sometimes you gotta live life for the moment; reach for that star, and so forth. I'd be remiss if I didn't also point out that I am once again re-watching The Sopranos. It's probably my fourth time through. The quality still amazes me. And I'm not the only one.

I was about five keystrokes from publishing the new book, when I realized it still needed another revision, so I am in the midst of that. It's to the point where I really want to have it off my back, and that's the dangerous point where you start making compromises. I need to remind myself another month or two will make no difference. Much beyond that, though, and I will risk being indecisive and fearful, which is worse. I need to stay focused on pulling the trigger, because the next writing project is starting to take shape -- in my mind, at least.

[TV] Detectives, True
[TV] Nerd Defense League
[TV] The Game has Two Left Feet
[Cars] Search For a New Ride
[Detroit] Genuine Detroit

[TV] Detectives, True

Detectives, True: True Detectives is the latest darling of blowhard elitist TV watchers like myself, and it's certainly worth watching. It is, primarily, an actor's showcase. Dominated by Matthew McConaughey's drawl-slow intonation of nihilist soliloquies, they take some riveting deep dives into the mind of a character, probably predisposed towards depression, who gave up on existence when his daughter was killed in a car accident. He has since only tenuously come to terms with not committing suicide and devoting his time in the world to police work. It's intelligent, yet chilling, stuff. Less mind-blowing, but equally skillful is Woody Harrelson's portray of his partner, a man completely invested in his illusions of the moral principle, and his self-justifications for violating it.

It's cleverly structured dramatically. The action takes place in the late nineties (ish?) and it is to a large extent narrated by the leads in the current day, under the guise of recapping the case because the initial records were lost in Katrina (the setting is Louisiana). However, the inscrutably silent present day cops who are taking notes of the recap clearly have an agenda beyond that -- a more current murder that is similar. So interestingly, we know that the leads solved the case in the first two minutes of the series. We know, roughly where they ended up in their lives. There is some suspense related to the present day murders, but the bulk of the interest is the personal story of the two leads, their backstories, and what they went through in solving the original case that resulted in their current state. I love this. I recently lamented that the only shows ever produced anymore we're crime based, there is little that is truly personal. This turning of the police procedural into a deep rumination on the depths of individual characters by rendering the "mystery" inert is brilliant. And it works because the characters, and their portrayal, are up to the task.

So when I tell you that the mystery seems to be little more than formulaic serial murder construct, it really doesn't matter all that much. In fact, it may almost be the whole point. I guess we'll see as it develops. But if you haven't been watching I suggest you binge to catch up. I'm crossing my fingers in hopes that it ends as strong as it's started. Plus, if you're familiar with the show you'll get the humor in the True Detective Conversations tumbler.

[TV] Nerd Defense League

Nerd Defense League: I like Big Bang Theory. So does everyone else. It's only the most popular show in the known universe or something. The writing is not as crisp as it was in the early seasons, but the it has one of the strongest ensembles of comic actors you'll ever see. It's run into some resistance in the media as it has evolved over time, though.

First, a common complaint is that it is nerd blackface, that it's gone from laughing with nerds to laughing at them. There is some validity to this. Early on in the series when the nerds were picked on, although there may have been a laugh here and there, it was ultimately portrayed as sad. At least to be a nerd on this show was not to be ridiculed or shamed or have it be something you were supposed to get over. Now occasionally the nerd-slamming is the joke in itself, but that kind of fits with the age of the characters. They are all adults now, with adult problems, not being picked on by bullies, so they would likely laugh at nerdiness now because it's not such a symbol of pain anymore. (I say this as someone with painful memories of high school geekery.) At least it is still respectful of nerds, enough to get the facts and prevailing opinions straight.

The second complaint is that it has turned from a show about four nerds to a latter day version of Friends. Well, there's not much you can do about that. If the show is going to last more than a season or two, it's going to have to morph. Five years down the road, you don't want to find yourself in the writer's room trying to figure out a new spin on Leonard working up the courage to ask Penny out. For the sake of longevity, you get 3-4 years of nerd tropes, then 3-4 more of Friends knock offs, and then you have entered the sitcom run-length stratosphere along with Cheers and Frasier and Seinfeld and Friends, offering lucrative lead-ins and endless syndication to make millionaires out of everyone involved. If you're really, really good you relocate to the suburbs and start knocking off Modern Family or Everybody Loves Raymond for another four years. Then Men of a Certain Age. I am only being marginally absurd.

For now everyone should just chill out and appreciate that it is still smart and funny, usually, after all these years. It's a high quality three camera sitcom and has remained so. It's part of our shared culture now. One of the few shows that can say that since the 90s.

[TV] The Game has Two Left Feet

The Game has Two Left Feet: Sherlock and Elementary: these Sherlock Holmes updatings, from opposite side of the Atlantic, are both deeply flawed.

The English version, Sherlock, is the better of the two, mostly because the Holmes/Watson duo is portrayed by the killer combo of Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman. The show itself is perhaps the most uneven TV show I have ever seen. There are episodes that are heart-stoppingly brilliant, and others that are among the worst of TV, some that are both. Some of the scripts crackle with wit, others are little more than filler. Even the nasty episodes produce some joy in seeing the back and forth between Cumberbatch and Freeman. They can occasionally save bits of the more ham-fisted productions.

The U.S. version has Jonny Lee Miller and Lucy Liu (as "Joan" Watson). Martin/Liu have good chemistry, but can't approach Cumberbatch/Freeman. Elementary degrades Holmes to some extent. It treats the show as if it is just another one of the endless mind-numbing police procedurals network TV has cranked out over the years. The show is no different from CSI or NCIS or any of those other alphabet soup cop shows. That Sherlock Holmes is the lead character is just a gimmick.

Now, that said. Sherlock generates about five hours of drama a year. Three episodes of roughly 90-100 minutes. This is typical of the Brits. I fail to understand why, given that schedule and the writing talent they can draw on, every episode is not a polished gem. On the other hand, Elementary is of the old school 24 hour-long episode season construction. Perhaps that explains why they just regurgitate the old police procedural formula week after week.

Another contrast is how fast and loose they play with the original Holmes and Watson. Both shows have had to make adjustments simply because Holmes, as formulated by Arthur Conan Doyle, is not conducive to a long television run where characters have to grow and develop and have an arc of some sort (unless you're the cast of Seinfeld). How do you do that with a self-confessed automaton like Sherlock Holmes? Sherlock pushes Holmes to the edge of emotional growth giving him a streak of sentimentality, but for the most part the Holmes is still the cold fish he is in myth, although with a much more biting wit and stronger penchant toward irony. Sadly, Holmes does not simply deduce -- he has something called a "mind palace" where he does his deductions. It's a misguided attempt to use special effects to show his thought process. This is presumed to be superior to a simple explanation, at least from an entertainment standpoint. It's not. It's kinda dumb. But not as dumb as turning Watson's wife Mary into a clandestine superspy. It's jarring to watch a show where the dialog and acting are brilliant while the plot twists is so abominable.

Elementary pretty much goes all the way to demolishing the known characters. The setting is New York City, not London. Holmes is a recovering drug addict with a tendency to fret. Watson is his former councilor, now turned partner, and one gathers she is now his equal in detection. Since this Watson is a woman, she can't be portrayed as mentally subordinate to any man, even Sherlock Holmes -- not acceptable in our world. Effectively this turns Holmes into just another smart private eye/police consultant. Holmes grows emotionally over stretches when he is blamed for a policeman's getting shot, or he becomes a sponsor for another addict, or he has to reconnect with his brother -- all the sort of weepy cliches TV drama has thrown at us endlessly over the years. The most appalling change is to convert his brother Mycroft, who in the books was the only man who could outthink Sherlock and was essential to the functioning of the British government, into a pointless dopey-ass restaurateur. Da hell?

I'd follow future seasons of Sherlock, if there are to be any, mostly because at five hours total output it's worth it in hopes of catching a killer episode. I'll probably watch out the string of this season of Elementary just out of habit, but with each episode it slowly recedes to background noise while I read my Kindle. Unless they do something spectacular by the end of the year, that's it for me. Although not for everyone else apparently. It's garnered high ratings.

[Cars] The Search for a New Ride

Search for a New Ride: The check engine light won't go off. I think it's an emissions thing which would bother me if I cared about the environment. I get a howling road noise between the speeds of 45-50 mph. Mechanic says a new set of tires will solve it. I'm not so sure, but I might try it in another 2000-3000 miles. But the real killer is that It's burning oil at a rate of about a quart every 1500 miles. No leaks, presumably just head gasket-y kind of stuff. It's got 185,000 miles (but, impressively, no rust). It might be the year to wedge a crowbar in my wallet and get a new car. Time to do some looking.

The first realization that comes from this is that new cars are really friggin' expensive. If I were to get a four-year loan for another Camry, a 2014, I'd be looking at a monthly payment between $550 and $600. Not to mention that my insurance might go up. Then there's the question of what to do with my current car. As a trade I would get nowhere near what it's worth. I could go through the hassle of putting it on Craigslist and finding a buyer that way, but who's going to pony up cash for a car with the Check Engine light on. And if I'm going to get it fixed up for sale, I might as well keep it, right? I could donate it to charity, but the tax write-off would likely be less than what I would get for trade-in. I'm so confused.

I really don't know what kind of car I would get. I no longer feel locked in to a Camry or any Toyota. Don't laugh, but my first thought is that I should get a minivan. Minivans ride and drive as well as most sedans, and when I look at that cavernous space in back -- well, it'd wonderful to be able to just throw a set of bikes in the back, or load up bags of mulch by the score, or take five people and their luggage on the 4 hour drive to Mackinac Island, all without breaking a sweat. But minivans are more expensive than Camrys. That's not entirely true; I could get a low-end Dodge Caravan for probably less than a Camry, but then I'd be driving a low-end Dodge and there are compromises in going low-end. For example, I would not get a full-sized spare tire -- a mini-spare is optional -- standard is a tire inflator kit. I think my minivan would have to be a mid-level Toyota Sienna or a Honda Odyssey, and that means moolah.

But let's face it: the overwhelming majority of the time, it's just me in the car. All that space would be empty. It would probably be cheaper, but a good deal less convenient, just to rent a van or pickup truck on an as needed basis. The practical answer would be to do that, then get something small and efficient. The new Honda Fit looks awfully cool. Another favorite if I went this route would be to go with a Prius V (the Prius station wagon model). The Prius V is roughly Camry-priced, but I would have to take it through a serious test drive to see how I liked hybrid driving. The Honda Fit might be even better. It can't match the hybrid for mileage, but it's no slouch, and I could slide in easily under 20 grand.

Then again, longevity is key, since I treat a cars as a durable good -- something that I will still be using 10 years from now if not longer. That makes me worry about mechanical and technical complications in cars like the Prius. Hybrids have been around for over a decade now, but is that long enough to be considered proven? And the Fit is renowned for its cutting-edge technology, which makes it suspect for the long haul.

Of course, if durability is the primary concern, the best choice is probably a full-size Lexus or Toyota -- especially a Toyota truck. That's an idea: a Toyota Tundra pickup, one with rear seats. It solves most of my issues, with the added bonus of allowing me to see over all the crossovers and SUVs and such. I could get the six-cylinder version since I won't be doing any major hauling. Two-wheel drive. Mileage still would probably be only around 17-ish on average.

So, let's recap. I've found reasons to both buy and not buy a new car, and if I buy, I've found reasons to select anything from a tiny compact car to a full sized truck. This is what it's like in my head. It's a wonder I ever make any decisions. If you were to bet, you'd do well wagering I was still driving my current ride by the end of the year.

[Detroit] Genuine Detroit

Genuine Detroit: Up until now I thought Detroit had nothing to offer. I thought the only positive attraction for outsiders was how easy it was to scam the authorities into providing tax breaks. That, and the ability to murder someone without getting caught. I was wrong, slightly. Detroit does have something that money cannot buy: Authenticity.

Authenticity is a rare and highly prized commodity. It is a common theme of the middle and upper-middle classes that they seek authenticity. In this context, you can loosely define authenticity as an image of counter-consumerism. Anything that can position itself as being sourced from an impulse unaffected by marketing, profit, or mass appeal can be authentic. Bear in mind, something may be mass produced and ubiquitous, but still be authentic. It's all about the purity of intent behind the object, or at least the perception of such.

  • Orlando, FL is not authentic. Sanibel Island, FL is.
  • The University of Arizona (the largest public university and a dedicated diploma mill) is not authentic. Notre Dame is.
  • A Carnival cruise to Cozumel is not authentic. A river cruise along the Rhine is.
  • Lou Malnati's is authentic. Papa John's is not.
  • A vintage Saab 900 is authentic. A GM-made Saab SUV is not.
You see, it is not the quality of the experience or the value that makes it authentic. It's the genesis of the thing.

Mass produced and popular items can be authentic. Guinness Stout is ubiquitous and authentic. I would argue Las Vegas is probably one of the most authentic places on Earth. There can be no question of the purity of intent behind Vegas: using vice to make money. It may not be laudable, but it is pure. Nike is perhaps the most skillful company at keeping themselves positioned as authentically dedicated to their field (athletics) while keeping equal focus on the bottom line.

Apple and Google also work hard to maintain their authenticity, the image of purity in their purpose. Apple works hard to be the artist of technology, the people dedicated to visionary design above all else. Google puts a lot of effort into not losing their reputation as the techno-geek paradise, the place where high-IQ daydreams become reality. As long as they do that, they know they will be authentic. Their products are not better than Microsoft's, but they are authentic. Microsoft is not.

It turns out, Detroit is dripping with authenticity. It makes sense. Now that it's mired in bankruptcy and has been turned over to a State-appointed administrator, Detroit can no longer pretend to be in the middle of rebirth, a phoenix rising from the ashes. It is the ashes. It is the endgame of a crime and corruption death spiral that has been going on for over half a century. It no longer has any deluded defenders who claim it isn't bad, or that it's just a perception problem. And in the decades it took to reach that point it became something: honest. It started with all the Ruin Porn. Then bankruptcy captured the headlines. But however it came about, the image of Detroit synced up with reality. In perception Detroit became a place without pretense. Detroit can't afford to keep the lights on so it has to sell off it's art works. Detroit is now a hero of day-to-day survival; a no-frills place where nothing useful wasted. It's a place where gritty celebrities like Eminem and Bob Dylan buy Chryslers. It is what you would be if all the luxuries and consumption that are the stuff of Liberal guilt were stripped from you. A place where dreams and delusions are not worth your time. Tough and unsparing. Serious and desperate. More than a little dangerous. It is what it is. Authentically so.

A thoughtful person, one unmoved by the contemporary authenticity fetish, would be happy to keep such a place far, far away, but we are not a thoughtful people. Although it does the city little good, some folks are hitching a ride of Detroit's authenticity to enhance their own. There is a hotel/casino in Las Vegas (downtown on Fremont street) called The D. It is acknowledgedly Detroit-themed. I visited it last fall and the Detroit theming amounts to having a Detroit-staple American Coney Island Restaurant (the first outside Michigan) and being a gathering place for Lions fans during football season. But still, the association with something glitz-free like Detroit positions the hotel as a spot for people who want none of wanton bling of The Strip. If your self image is one of no nonsense and you'd prefer a place and audience that puts on no airs, The D will flip your switch.

Another clever business using Detroit to make it seem real is watch maker Shinola. Formed by a founder of Fossil, they proudly stamp "Detroit" all their watches, which all have a clean and simple design, implying a company and that is devoted to its product, no nonsense or pandering to shallow fashion. The final assembly of the watches is in Detroit and if you're going to set up shop in a place as unglamorous as Detroit, you must be serious, right? I'll let the auto blog The Truth About Cars tell it:
Shinola, a brand name revived from the former shoe polish company by Fossil watch founder Tom Kartsotis, was founded in part to take advantage of Detroit as a brand. All Shinola products are branded "Shinola Detroit" and Kartsotis leases a floor in the Taubman building of the College of Creative Studies in Detroit's midtown section, where they assemble watches from Swiss movements and Chinese components.…Detroit, the city, the culture and the image, are important parts of Shinola's overall branding as is sourcing as many American made supplies as is possible.
This is not to say any of this is going to "save" Detroit, any more than urban farming or tax breaks for Hollywood or a new arena for the Red Wings will. There is no "saving" of Detroit to be had. It is just a curiosity; an odd, irrational signpost of our odd, irrational times. In our world, you can use failure and destitution to sell quality. It's in such a world that Detroits happen to begin with.