Sunday, April 05, 2015

The Month That Was - March 2015

Apart from surviving another winter (my 55th) the life demarcation of the month was my mom's 90th birthday. She survived a childhood during the Great Depression, which makes our houses-underwater crisis look like paradise; served with the Waves in WW2, the sacrifices of which make our long lines at airport security seem like fly spec on the window; and she raised me and didn't end up in therapy, which should have earned her a Nobel Prize. She still drives to the store, still sits on her condo board, and still goes out to eat with her friends, and seems as happy as can be. Because of her I am convinced that, if you can stay relatively healthy, independent, and engaged with the world, happiness increases with age, not the reverse. Next target: triple digits.

Apart from that, still writing, still working, still pushing my way through life as best I can. I am 36 years behind my mom.

[Books] Book Look: The Devotion of Suspect X
[Rant] Fraternal Disorder
[Tech] The End of an Era
[TV] Latest Toobage
[Books] The Mirror of Yesterday

[Books] Book Look: The Devotion of Suspect X, by Keigo Higashino

For me, the toughest part of writing a novel is the plotting. I really struggle with a generating a complex, interwoven, causal series of actions to get my point across.So when I come across a book like The Devotion of Suspect X, which is exquisitely plotted, I am doubly impressed.

Yatsuko is a divorced mother working hard to raise her daughter solo. She is paid a visit by her scumbag ex-husband and things turn violent. In the process she kills her ex as he is assaulting her daughter. She frets that she is now a murderer and her fate is sealed, but her next door neighbor, Ishigami, overhears what happened and, as he has a secret love for Yatsuko, he takes it upon himself to hide the crime. Ishigami, it turns out, is a mathematical genius who uses all his clever intellect to arrange things so that even though suspicion might fall on Yatsuko, there will be so much misdirection and uncertainty that nothing will come of it. Unfortunately, the police are in the habit of employing Manabu Yukawa, a physics professor and former classmate of Ishigami, to assist in these sorts of investigations. His nickname is Detective Galileo, so you can expect a high order game of cat and mouse.

The novel doesn't necessarily dodge all of the shortcomings typical in police procedurals. There are potential inaccuracies: I am not familiar with criminal legalities in Japan but I find it hard to believe that a woman who kills a man while he is assaulting her daughter would be charged with murder like any other criminal. Perhaps there is no such thing as justifiable homicide in Japan? But this is required to trigger the action. Much of the investigation is based on “evidence" no person would actually think of as connected to the case. But again, this helps keep the narrative moving. There is manipulation: Detective Galileo keeps secrets from his colleagues (and therefore us) until it is dramatically appropriate to reveal them. And the characters, at least at the outset, are fairly cliched. This is all de rigeur for a police procedural and in no way out of line or jarring in this book.

And there is so much more on the positive side. First and foremost the story really moves. There are no dead spots. At no point was I thinking, as I often do, that the length could easily be cut in half. It is an exceptionally well paced book; tautly written and, presumably, tautly translated; that is half the battle in genre writing. And as I mentioned before the plotting is extraordinary. The step-by-step actions and reaction is interwoven seamlessly with the steady, teasing stream of reveals.

But the icing on the cake is the ending. The characters, adequately drawn for most of the book, suddenly take on a deeper humanity that brings a real emotional effect. Our protagonists go from hopeful of total escape, to acceptance of lesser suffering, to total devastation. Law is enforced, but Justice is only partially served. Unlike most books where the ending is almost a letdown, here the ending elevates the story above the crowd.

Should you read The Devotion of Suspect X? Yes. I can't think of anyone who wouldn't enjoy it, either as a connoisseur of well-written police procedurals or just for an engrossing beach read. Enjoy.

[Rant] Fraternal Disorder

When I was in college I belonged to a fraternity (this was at The University of Michigan). Of course, my fraternity was not anything like your stereotype. I don't recall many formal parties and, since we were really a bunch of low-end slackers, it wasn't like the sororities were remotely interested in spending time with us. A significant portion of our membership were there because they really had nowhere else to go, and because nobody complained too loudly about how much weed they smoked. I won't mention which fraternity so as not to embarrass anyone who has tried to lead an upstanding life since then.

So here's my SAE (Sigma Alpha Epsilon) story from thirty years ago. Every year there was a festival called Greek Week where all the frats and sororities on campus got together and held silly little competitions and various events, mostly for charity. Supposed to be a fun thing. Since there were many more frats than sororities, each team consisted of two frats and and one sorority, randomly drawn. One year, my frat, probably the least desirable one on campus, got teamed with SAE and some sorority I don't even remember. Needless to say the SAE Hitler Youth were not happy about this; it must have been a source of great shame to have to been associated with us. At one point a couple of them stormed over to our house and told us we were going to do whatever they told us, when they told us, or we were going to get our asses kicked. This was the mentality of these idiots.

So when I heard about the racist video from their Oklahoma chapter and I realized they were going to have the full weight of righteous progressive society dropped on them from on high, my gut reaction was that it couldn't have happened to a more deserving bunch of guys.

I don't really have a SAM (Sigma Alpha Mu) story. In my time, they were thought to be a decent sort; good Jewish boys, and such. Although SAM hadn't been exclusively Jewish for decades, it was still predominantly Jewish at the time. I have to think that changed because -- and this is not intended as a backhanded bigotry -- most of the Jewish people I know are way too intelligent to trash a ski resort in a drunken rampage.

Anyway, both those places -- the Oklahoma SAE chapter and the Michigan SAM chapter -- are history now. That's probably appropriate. Although I will say in a half-hearted defense of SAM, it's really hard to cause 400K in damages in a weekend, even for frat boys. My guess is the figure is closer to 100K and 400K is just the start of negotiations.

In further mitigation of outrage, I'll just point out that fraternities are an easy target; they are reviled in popular culture and you will see them get painted with a broad brush by people who would go into a fit of moral indignation if you engaged in such stereotyping in any other circumstances. All fraternities aren't full of drunken, spoiled brats who drug and rape coeds with impunity. All chapters of a given fraternity aren't the same from campus to campus or era to era. It's entirely likely that the SAE chapter at Michigan is no longer peopled with Hitler Youth. It is certainly true that my fraternity at Michigan is no longer filled with layabouts and scoundrels. Indeed, those times had changed before I even left.

But I have to say, given the events of the past few weeks I have never been happier to have been a part of a brotherhood of low-end, bong-hitting, undesirable slackers. Whatever our shortcomings at the time, at least we did no harm.

[Tech] End of an Era

Over the years I have documented my various misadventures with technology of all sorts, but through it all there had been one item that consistently merited praise. It will sound strange, but the most pleasing and reliable piece of technology I have ever owned is my SMC router. After going through a couple of name brand routers that failed pretty much the instant their warranty was up, I ended up with the SMC based on a review I read on NewEgg. I first plugged it in maybe ten years ago, it worked well, and it continued to work well, without fail. No phone, no tablet, no laptop, no TV -- no piece of technology has been as loyal and stress-free as my little router.

So imagine my shock a few months ago when I suddenly lost my wi-fi. I fiddled around a bit and eventually resetting the router got me back on-line. Just a fluke, I told myself. But then it happened again a month or so later. Then it started happening a bit more frequently. At this point I have to reset it every week to ten days on average. Not bad, really. I know of brand new name brand routers that don't work as well. But it is a sign that my dear little friend is sliding into dementia. There will come a point when resetting it won't work. That will be a dark day indeed.

I have purchased a replacement just in case. I don't want to be in the middle of something only to find myself untethered and having to cobble together something make-shift, or worse, head for the nearest McDonalds, to finish. The only question is When do I pull the plug? I think sooner rather than later. If I pull it while it's still working I can continue to use it as an emergency back up. I don't think I could bring myself to throw it away. Instead I'll let it sit idly on the shelf in well-earned retirement. Never can say goodbye.

Oh, the new one is a TP-Link AC 1750. Purchase based on a recommendation from The Wirecutter. It has a lot to live up to.

[TV] Latest Toobage

Justified is doing fine in its final go 'round. I'll should write a retrospective once it's over. It had its uneven streaks over the years but it was a cut above. Not eternal art, but top quality TV and it will be forever iconic in pop culture, I strongly suspect. Assuming Raylan Givens survives the finale, I can easily see a follow-up movie or mini-series. Once again, TV outdoes movies -- this time at interpreting Elmore Leonard.

Mad Men is coming, and going, in the next couple of months. I've pretty much written its eulogy before. It is the last gasp of TVs heroic age. Little more needs to be said than that. It was not high-concept like the holy trinity (Sopranos, Deadwood, The Wire) it was simply the finest sustained character study in the history of film and video arts.

I am cheered by Better Call Saul. Vince Gilligan is proving himself to be awfully talented once again. And frankly, from what I've seen Better Call Saul has potential to join The Pantheon. (The Pantheon is the holy trinity mentioned above + Mad Men and Breaking Bad.)

There are a number of TV critics who think The Americans is the best show on TV now. One in particular, Andy Greenwald at Grantland, declared season 2 the best TV show of 2014. I had to check it out to see what I was missing. Short summary: I disagree. It's a very good, well made show, but there are too many holes in its game. I really struggled with tone. On the one hand there is realistic Cold War intrigue, but on the other hand they will end up with action scenes where a 90-pound Keri Russell is kung-fuing two-hundred pound men into unconciousness. That pulls them from being a tense, semi-realistic thriller into Buffy-style fantasy. There was also the suggestion that the show was fascinating in the way it made you root for Russian spies over your own country. It didn't do that for me. I found myself hoping the protagonists got caught and strung up by their jubblies. For a while that's OK, but it's remarkable how exhausting it is to watch a show where the bad guys always seem to get away. I tried to binge season 2 and got about eight episodes in before I gave up. Good show, top quality production, you'll probably enjoy it, but not as great as you may have heard. Still, I may finish it one day.

My other binge, Silicon Valley, is turning out nicely. Terrific performances and pitch perfect satire. One of my get-off-my-lawns is how inane dorks like Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert have conditioned the public to think that satire is just half-witted snark that confirms your views and massages your ego. It's not. Silicon Valley is satire of the highest order. In all the years I have been blogging I have never mentioned the company I work for but it's a big progressive multinational in the information industry and you can bet your gold Apple Watch that I see a lot of the sorts of things being satirized in Silicon Valley every day. Great, sharp-eyed stuff. There are weak moments of broad farce, and a fair amount of empty raunch, but at its best it approaches a level of comedy unseen since Archer in its heydey.

I have been one of the dozen or so people who have been watching Episodes on Showtime. Since you probably never heard of it, it's a lightweight comedy about a married pair of English TV writers who try to recreate their hit show in America and have all sorts of misadventures with a zany cast of characters. The writing is standard fare, but there was usually a good guffaw in each episode, mostly due to the fine comic chops of the actors, including Matt LeBlanc playing a douchebag version of Matt LeBlanc. They only did 8 episodes a season and first couple of seasons were fine; the third not so much; and the just-finished fourth one was pretty sad. A good case study on what happens to a show when you run out of ideas. Time to let it go.

Lastly, the big rumor is that one of my favorite shows in history, X-Files, looks to be getting re-start order as a short stack (6-8 eps). David Duchovny and Gillian Anderson are on board, which is good, Chris Carter is going to be the showrunner again, which is OK, and he'll also do all the writing, which is not so ok. He was responsible for every boring episode of the original series and the lame movies as well. Unless he can lure back Vince Gilligan, Glen Morgan, James Wong, and the divine Darin Morgan to do the heavy lifting, I do not have high hopes.

Can't return soon enough: Second seasons of Fargo, True Detective, and Silicon Valley, and the 5th of Game of Thrones, of course.

[Books] The Mirror of Yesterday

I have been slowly working my way through The World of Yesterday, by Stefan Zweig, an Austrian writer from the early twentieth century who had suffered a decline in notoriety, but has recently been given attention because Wes Anderson stated hisbooks to be very influential on his creation of The Grand Budapest Hotel. It is a remarkable book for many reasons, and I'll review it in full soon. For now, let me just give you an extended quote:
"In its liberal idealism, the nineteenth century was honestly convinced that it was on the direct and infallible road to the best of all possible worlds. The people of the time scornfully looked down on earlier epochs with their wars, famines and revolutions as periods when mankind had not yet come of age and was insufficiently enlightened. Now, however, it was a mere matter of decades before they finally saw an end to evil and violence, and in those days this faith in uninterrupted, inexorable 'progress' truly had the force of a religion.

Science, the archangel of progress, had worked all these miracles. Social welfare was also proceeding apace; from year to year more rights were granted to the individual, the judiciary laid down the law in a milder and more humane manner, even that ultimate problem, the poverty of the masses, no longer seemed insuperable….Sociologist and professors competed to make the lives of the proletariat healthier and happier--no wonder that century basked in its own sense of achievement and regarded every decade as it drew to a close as the prelude to a better one."
In my middle-aged pursuit of understanding the validity of our societal faith in cultural progress, have I not said almost exactly the same things in describing us (although probably not as eloquently)? Tell me if that does not sound like something I've written in the last couple of years. It shines a light on much of what I have been thinking and feeling about progressivism: that it is not new but must delude us that it is for it to hold. More next month, but I just felt like I had to offer a little taste.