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 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.