Wednesday, January 07, 2015

The Month That Was - December 2014

Wait a minute. There's going to be another year? I don't recall voting on this. How did this happen?

Like many things in this world, Christmas has gotten easier. From back in the previous century I remember long lines at the post office and dire warnings from the clerks about how long it will take them to deliver my package, what with the holiday volume and all. In recent years my Christmas shopping has taken about 15 minutes spread out over a couple of days of casual web surfing. You get it online or you don't get anything. Easy-peasy.

What, you thought I was a Black Friday warrior or something?

Making good progress on writing. The new book is coming along nicely. Also, I note the Basho's Inward Road garnered a 5 star review from some kind soul on

I'm getting disgusted with myself for slacking so thoroughly on the house, which I pretty much did for the bulk of 2014. That has to change in 2015. Flooring, master bath, landscaping. I must bite the bullet and make get stuff going. And I must mean it.

Apart from that vow, no New Year's resolutions for me. No places to visit or fitness goals. I'll make ‘em up as I go. In fact, just as long as I still able to go, I'm probably lucky.

[Books] Book Look: House of Leaves
[Movies] The Golden Age of Monsters
[Cars] Infuriating Excellence

[Books] Book Look: House of Leaves, by Mark Z. Danielewski

It's hard to describe House of Leaves without making it sound like a gimmicky mess. And it is to no small extent, but it is not so gimmicky that it hides the well-told story at its core. Let me give you an idea of the structure.

The subject of the book is a reality style film (one suspects it is in the "found footage" style) in which a Pulitzer prize-winning photographer and his family discover that their recently purchased house is bigger on the inside than on the outside. A closet appears where there was none and it leads to an immense, blank, dungeon-like realm where space seems to shift and distance expand and contract to some unknown end.

The core of the book is found manuscript -- a critique of this film and its cultural influences, written by a somewhat eccentric, old, academic. We learn the contents of the film through this extended critique. This academic critique was found in the apartment of its author upon his death of either natural or unnatural causes.

The finder of this critique is one of the neighbors of the deceased academic. He is something of a low life, but he feels compelled to investigate the validity of the critique and peppers it with footnotes of his discoveries and interpretations.

Got it so far? The book is an academic critique of the film with extended footnotes by the third party low life. Except...

The low life may be crazy to the point of delusion. At first he hints that it is the manuscript itself that is driving him insane, but as his footnotes get more deeply autobiographical, we realize it may be a pre-existing condition or simply a grave emotional crisis brought on by confrontations of childhood trauma.

And there is considerable evidence that the film being critiqued doesn't actually exist. All of the cultural references in the critique appear to be made up. Also, the author of it was blind and there is no way he could have describe the film in such vivid visual detail from spoken descriptions.

As a result we are left with two somewhat parallel narrative both of questionable literary authenticity: the low life's footnotes and the description of a film that may not exist. The good news is, although this sounds like it must be some sort of mad jumble, it actually is not difficult to keep track of both narratives. The other good news is that the narratives, whether they are intended to be real or not, are excellent.

The better of the two is the narrative of the film. It is a standard haunted house story wherein the house is a metaphor for familial and marital troubles that ends with lovers joined and wiser, but it is remarkably delicately handled and the characters are drawn so well and sympathetically it transcends the cliche. The framework of describing it as part of an extended academic critique allows for interpretive commentary and perfectly timed digressions to heighten the suspense. Really, it's just exceptionally well done. Just the narrative of the film would have a made a great stand-alone horror novella.

The gimmicky parts got a little long in the tooth however. Since this was supposedly a presentation of the "actual manuscript" all sort of gymnastics were done with the text from missing and misspelled words to entire pages with a single word or sentence fragment, to mirror text, to extended list of items that had little relevance to the story. The hope was to emphasize the weirdness of both the story and the storyteller (the old, blind academic) but to me it was unnecessary. The words were enough to convey the correct tone and atmosphere. The gimmicks just got in the way.

The second narrative, the low life's story, had less of an impact on me. Probably because I don't share pop culture's fascination with low lifes, and the grueling descriptions of sexual encounters were, well, grueling. Still, the progression of the madness and the slow exposition of it's (probable) source were expertly handled -- perfectly structured and timed.

Danielewski is a writer of enormous gifts of craft. Whether either of the narratives touch you or you react positively or negatively to what I have called the gimmicks, there is no denying the astounding level of creativity that went into the formulating this book. Should you read House of Leaves? If you are attracted to unconventional fictional structure (or if you are at least not repelled by it) then yes. It's a very entertaining story (or stories) any way you approach it. If you are a very casual reader and struggle with anything that isn't a straightforward and fully resolved, or if you are just uncomfortable with uncertainty, then no. That is a key point that elevates this book above the crowd, the uncertainty is deeply integrated with every aspect of the story and becomes part of the experience for the characters and for the reader. It's a real stand out in contemporary fiction.

[Movies] The Golden Age of Monsters

I was channel surfing briefly on late night and I stumbled across a new (I think it's new) network called El Rey in the 800-level channels. It is apparently a network dedicated to camp, cult, and grindhouse style productions. Sort of a network dedicated to the tastes of Quentin Tarantino. Could be of interest if they find oddball films or do some original programming. Anyway, they were in the middle of a Japanese monster (or more properly daikaiju) festival starting with the original Godzilla (or more correctly Gojira).

Confession: when I was a wee lad I loved watching these monster flicks. There used to be something called The 4:30 Movie, which came on one of the three VHF channels every weekday at, yeah, 4:30pm. They typically ran all sort of low-rent movies, peppered with uncountable commercial breaks. But it was timed perfectly for when I got home from school. Every once in a while they would have monster week and when they ran these films and I never missed them. So forgive my nostalgiac need to write about them.

The story of the original Godzilla is well known. There are two version that are available to English speaking audiences. One is a straight voice over of the original Japanese film called, Gojira. The other is a that same film, chopped up and interspersed with additional scenes that feature Raymond Burr as an American journalist watching and commenting on the monster mayhem, and renamed Godzilla, King of Monsters. Common opinion is that the Raymond Burr version is deeply inferior and undeniably inauthentic. I somewhat agree, but I actively resist the smugly fashionable conceit of authenticity, even when it comes to monster movies. I will say that the original, despite the cheesy genre, has some excellent moments. The shadowy camera work and way tension is built in many early scenes is really striking, even to this day. It's easy to see how, in a darkened theatre, at a time when we weren't completely desensitized to special effects, in Japan, where there was common memory of a massive destructive force emerging from the East, this would be terrifying. Interest pretty much ends, however, when Godzilla appears and it is so obviously a guy in a clownishly amatuer-looking rubber suit, kicking over balsa wood models.

After that there were a handful of sequels introducing other monsters, specifically Rodan (a giant bird/reptile thing) and Mothra (a giant moth who is killed). Then came Ghidorah, the Three Headed Monster, a movie that simply could not have been made without the consumption of untold quantities of LSD.

To wit: An south seas island whose natives worship an enormous and deeply creepy-looking caterpillar. Twin fairies, about a foot tall, who speak in unison, can summon the caterpillar via song, and live in a what appears to be a modified make-up kit. An androgynous woman who is clairvoyant and claims to be from Mars, but may actually be the resurrection of a human princess. (In the original Japanese version she was from Venus. They changed it to Mars for the US release for reasons that I'm sure it made sense when they were tripping.) A group of assassins in black suits from the princess homeland; these men are referred to as "the killers". And lastly Ghidorah itself, a three-headed, two-tailed dragon from outer space that shoots lightning out of its mouths and has no purpose other than wanton destruction.

The events are surreal. At one point the twin fairies appear on a sort of TV talk show and are challenged by some wise-ass kid to sing to the caterpillar. The androgynous woman is heckled by a crowd and told to do a striptease. The caterpillar has to convince Godzilla and Rodan to stop fighting and team up against Ghidorah by imploring them not to be "bullheaded". Pause to consider that one: A giant caterpillar called a giant bird and a giant reptile "bullheaded" as translated by twin telepathic foot-tall fairies speaking in unison. The mind reels.

Then there is the three-headed monster itself. It appears to have no purpose other than malevolence. It doesn't eat, sleep, breed, or do anything but break things kill people. Visually it is actually quite disturbing. It's three heads fly about haphazardly in all directions firing lighting wantonly, without any targeting intent. It emits an earsplitting shrill mechanical sort of shriek without pattern. It's a Lovecraftian vision of unfeeling, meaningless destruction. If I had to fight Cthulhu I would sick Ghidorah on him. It's clear at least one of the special effects team must have gotten a bad tab of acid.

You'd probably have to be pretty bored to actually seek out Ghidorah but if you notice it in your channel guide you may want to DVR it just to get a taste how weird the ‘60s really were and how the weirdness wasn't just confined to the West. Or you may want to check it out just to be in the know, because it appears the sequel to last Hollywood Godzilla, the one with Heisenberg, will mark the return of Ghidorah. I don't have high hopes for it. They don't make hallucinogens like they used to.

[Cars] Infuriating Excellence

Many years ago sci-fi author and technologist Jerry Pournelle coined the phrase "infuriatingly excellent" to describe a terrific piece of technology that was marred by some sort of inexplicable bug or, more likely, a misguided design feature. I would say infuriatingly excellent describes my 2014 Acura TL to a tee.

We have previously discussed the stupefying bizarreness of my car's keyless ignition system. It works like a dream, but if you lose the fob you are in a world of trouble. It's just expensive and slightly annoying if your are close to home, but if you are roadtripping far from a dealership you are in a world of pain and suffering, as there is no way to enter or drive your car with the fob. At that point you are going to have to go in search of rental car just to get you in a position where you can get a replacement key, and you better hope you are not leaving your (now bricked) car somewhere where it will get towed. Bottom line -- I could easily see a situation where you drop two grand or more. For losing you key.

Here's how: I am hundreds of miles from home or the nearest Acura dealer. I park in the lot a some beach or park, and then I lose my key fob. I cannot enter my car at that point. And even if I could I cannot start it. I can't keep spare fobs around because the keyless entry system only allows two to be in existence at any time and if they are in proximity to the car it will be effectively unlocked. At that point I am looking to rent a car, drive home, get my backup fob, drive back, only to discover my car has been towed for parking overnight where I shouldn't have. Then once finally retrieving my car (hopefully undamaged) then driving to the Acura dealer and ordering a new fob at a cost of about $400. Between fines, rental fees, and replacements I figure that would be about two or three grand. The life disruption is just a bonus.

That said, by careful planning, clever storage of the backup fob, and timely disabling of the keyless system I could protect myself from this. But why should I have to do this on a premium vehicle. Lesser brands have standard key backups. In 30 years of driving Toyotas I never worried about this because I could have a dozen keys made for a few bucks and always have one in my wallet.

As long as I have the fob the system works great. It's a terrific convenience not to have to dig in my pocket (and I suppose if I were a woman with a purse it would be an even greater convenience). It's excellent, but if I ever lose that fob, "infuriating" will be an understatement.

Then there are the little things about the electronics setup that are maddening.
  • The standard XM radio interface is lame -- it will display the station or the song info, but not both. My cheap little external unit I used in my previous two cars displayed more than that. You can get the AV display to show all the info but it reserves half the screen for the menu which is useless while you are driving. and it is awkward, and a bit laggy, to change stations.
  • You also can't set AV display to default to the radio. It always tries to start up to the live navigation map, and it always forces you to click through a disclaimer message telling you not to drive off a bridge even if the nav system tells you to. Always. Every time you start the car. Pull up a to a gas station, kill the engine, fill up on gas, then start the car -- you will have to click through the disclaimer. If you don't click the disclaimer in a certain amount of time the AV display clicks off. If I own this car as long as my previous ones I conservatively estimate I will have to click through this message on the order of 15,000 times.
  • The Nav system itself is good once you get an address entered, but getting an address entered is a crap shoot. You start by entering the name of the street -- not the street address, just the name of the street, and you better get it exactly right If you just enter "Main St" when you needed "South Main St" or "S Main" or "Main Street" you may have problem. Google and Microsoft have astoundingly flexible and forgiving interfaces for their maps. This interface behaves like a brain-damaged lookup from the early 90s internet.
  • The phone interface seems to work well; it reads my texts to me and answers voice calls properly and handles bluetooth flawlessly, but it will not import my contacts from my phone for some reason, so making calls via the voice interface is out unless I can figure out why it doesn't work. May have to do with Windows phone. I have never needed to do that anyway. I may just have to hand enter a few key numbers just in case.
All in all, it seems to be damning evidence that the value added by all this technology is counterbalanced by the frustration.

Now, ‘14 TL was the last year for the TL. It's been around a while, which is a selling point to me as it is well know car model have bugs and reliability issues worked out for the course of their model run. But it also may mean the the tech is out of date too and it's possible most of these problems are solved on newer models.

And I have to say the when it comes to actual driving, the TL is a flawless. The six-cylinder engine is smooth and strong in every situation, the transmission shifts are hardly noticeable. IT handles so well that I doubt an average driver like me would ever come close to finding a point where it was out of control. Unlike the pillowy rides of my previous Camrys, you can feel the bumps on the roads, but they do not jar you. It's truly a sweet, sweet, driving car. Over the road it is pretty close to flawless.

I just need to come to terms with the tricky electronics. Until Ii do, I would have to say given the opportunity to buy a different car, I would. It's possible this will be the first time in my life I don't keep a car until it falls apart. We'll see.

And with that I shall stop. Over the past three months it seems like I've written way too much about this. Isn't it just like me to struggle getting a few paragraphs of fiction written, but write a small novella's worth of gripes about my car? I'm done now. Until something goes wrong. Then I shall rail like nobody's business.