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.