Sunday, September 04, 2016

The Month That Was - August 2016

August was dominated by swimming. I did my first long-ish open water swim towards the end of the month and spent a good deal evenings after work flopping around in a local lake in preparation. I successfully completed the swim -- 1.2 miles, or the distance of the swim leg in a half-ironman triathlon -- but not without getting a bit of a beatdown courtesy of a pair of leaky goggles and the talon-like fingernails of another swimmer. In any event, it's always good to do something new for the first time and continue to push boundaries. I have adopted the philosophy that if I don't let up on my body by using my age as an excuse, I'll at least get the most out of it over the course of my life. The downside is I might kill myself sooner. Hmmm.

I also made some steady progress on the latest book. Nothing to to be terribly proud of except that it is in contrast to previous months where I have slacked totally.

Overall August has been pretty chilled out; bits of yard work and slothful evenings watching the Olympics. The sort of thing you daydream about yet don't notice when it happens.

[Books] Book Look: Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage
[Rant] Thing I Have Missed Out On
[Rant] The Olympics
[Good Links] Link Dump

[Books] Book Look: Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage, by Haruki Murakami

Were anyone to find themselves turned off by Murakami's penchant for the fantastic, this book provides an alternative. It is primarily a character study; there are no "big questions" in play, no ponderings of existential mysteries. It is a personal tale.

Tsukuru Tazaki is one of a circle of five very close friends in high school. They even remain close even as their lives begin to separate when they graduate. They share experiences of growing up and early adulthood and are in fact very deeply connected to each other in a way only young people can be. Then one day, without warning or explanation, Tazaki is ostracized. Tazaki's self-image is already one of being nothing special -- colorless -- so this rejection sends him into a depressive spiral that pushes him toward suicide. In time, he survives this episode, but remains firmly entrenched in his idea of himself as an afterthought in the world. He socializes little, attempts nothing exceptional, and is more or less resigned to a humbly solemn existence. Throughout it all, he remains haunted by the treatment he received from the friends who meant so much to him years ago.

He begins a relationship with a woman who encourages him to contact his former friends to resolve the question once and for all. One by one he reconnects with his old circle, eventually understanding the events that so traumatised him. In the course of this journey he is also surprised to find that his self-image is not the image of him others carry. In the end, he inches towards a more positive and hopeful view of life.

And that's it, in a nutshell. Should you read Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage? Yes, probably. As I said this is a restrained, intimate story. Those looking for the high drama and magic realism Murakami is known for might find it uninteresting. I did not. A good, relatable character study is a rare thing -- especially one that doesn't get bogged down in symbolism or social meaning. In some ways it is more reminiscent of short stories than a novel in that it is about sudden upheavals to the status quo. It will not be Haruki Murakami's most renown work, but those who read it will be touched.

[Rant] Things I Have Missed Out On

Snapchat -- I still don't get it. As far as I can tell it does nothing that other services don't do - Instagram in particular - except everything is ephemeral, disappearing after a few seconds, or 24 hours in the case of "stories". Although it's not really ephemeral, it just appears to be. The NSA can still see what you are doing, but I suppose short of a court order and a threat to National Security, it is ephemeral. I don't see any commercial use for it other than as an advertising conduit. So my image of Snapchat is that it is used by a bunch of folks who want to communicate with each other but don't want to be held accountable for the content -- which means it's heavy on images of bad behavior of one sort or another -- and a bunch of companies chasing their eyeballs. What am I missing?
Board Games -- Board games are huge, and according to most reports, more creative and imaginative than ever. This has been going on quietly for quite some time. At work there is a pack of guys who have been playing board games over lunch every day for well over a decade. I thought it was just one of those nerdy, Magic-Trolls-and-Dice sorts of games, but evidently these games are remarkably nuanced and diverse. Not that I would get involved; somewhere in the course of my life I lost interest in games almost completely -- this from a guy who used to play D&D all night and have multi-hour sessions with Sid Meier's original Civilization. Not sure what happened to me. Some of Popular Mechanics top games for 2016 sound fascinating. Evidently, video games are not where all the action is. Who knew?
Music since the early 80s -- Oh I know lots of songs that have come out since then, but I haven't followed performers or music trends in any way. Music was a driving passion for me from my early teen years until I was in my mid twenties, then nothing. Of course judging from what I hear in the background, not many other people have been following new music intently either, although that could just be the world catering to my demographic because it's the only one that has any disposable income anymore.

It's disturbing to continually have the music that I found so vital drift further and further into history. For example, the first album I ever bought with my own money was "Band on the Run": A true work of brilliance that has stood up over the years -- proving I had good taste even at age thirteen. But it is profoundly old. You know those vicious idiots who come up with the comparable time between events to show how old something is just to freak you out? Well, 2016 is to "Band on the Run" like -- I don't know -- some piece of music in the 1930s was to me when I first bought "Band on the Run" but I don't know any music from the '30s, nor did I when I was thirteen. Did they have recorded music back then or did everybody just listen to Aunt Millie play hymns on the upright piano in the parlor? By the same token the interval I have not paid close attention to music is equivalent to the interval between Singin' in the Rain and This is Spinal Tap. Yet, oddly, I don't feel like I've missed much. And plenty of kids know Band on the Run, and Paul McCartney is still touring. I hate to be the guy who talks about how better it was back in the day, but maybe in the case of music, it was.

[Rant] The Olympics

Since 2016 is the undeniably the most obnoxious year in recorded history, it's not strange that the Olympics were outright weird. It started with the run up during which we got persistent descriptions of the post-apocalyptic horror that is Rio de Janeiro -- roving cops, both real and fake, greeting tourists at the airport with "Welcome to Hell" signs then robbing them on the street. Water so polluted that sailors and rowers were advised to keep their mouths closed and rinse with anti-bacterial mouthwash between events. And, of course, Zika virus fears loomed large.

The scandals were, for the most part highly comical. The pool water turning green played into the pollution fears, even thought it was just algae. Are these pools not chlorinated, or was it bleach-resistant Brazilian super-algae? There were a couple of moments in wrestling that were stunningly stupid. One wrestler bit another one. And the coaches for Mongolia proceeded to strip to their underwear and throw their clothes at the judges over a controversial ruling. (Is that a cultural thing in Mongolia?) Honestly, you would have expected Hulk Hogan to rush in and attack someone with a chair.

The there was Ryan Lochte and some of his cohorts behaving like Zoolander come to life. He has assured himself eternal fame as the guy whose picture is next to "dumbass" in the dictionary. Just a gold-medal display of idiocy. It makes me so grateful that there were no camera trained on me when I was his age. I can pretend to be above it. It's going to be interesting to see how all this plays out for him. He can pretty much kiss any endorsements good-bye and his presence on the US Swim team in the future is going to have to be downplayed for the same reason. His youth suggests he still has another Olympics in him -- what will his situation be in four years? His image rehab plan apparently includes Dancing with the Stars. On the other hand, they say there is no such thing as bad publicity.

The games themselves were fun. The marquee athletes, for the most part, are genetic freaks but their youthful joy and awe at just being there makes them relatable. NBCs coverage was as parochial and retrograde as possible. The U.S. swimmers and women's gymnasts were the focus naturally, then there was some push on the U.S./Jamaica rivalry in sprinting, which should be more equitable in the future now that Usain Bolt has retired. There was little time for anything else what with all the commercials they had to wedge in every five minutes or so. Viewership was down, especially among the Millennials which was portrayed as another of their character flaws, but Millennials simply are not conditioned to tolerate endless commercial breaks and tape delays like us older folks. NBC's coverage was a disaster. It's as if in their mind folks were going to sit in front of the TV every evening with Swanson TV dinner and call their friends on their rotary phones to discuss what was going on.

Those of us with thousands of cable channels had it a bit better -- there were a couple of other options where you could get a broader look at the games, but you know what? They weren't that interesting. I caught a bit of ping-pong, and a bit of water polo, and after the curiosity wore off I changed the channel. I did watch the cycling when it came on because I follow cycling, but that's about it.

I'm conflicted about the Olympics. On the one hand, I think it's terrific that once every four years these folks who mostly compete in obscurity get some recognition and glory. But even that is for the marquee names. For most of the medallists, glory consists of a photo and an article in your hometown paper and maybe a visit to the local elementary school to tell the kids to stay in school. I suspect most of the audience is like me: I admire their skills and appreciate all the work they put in, but I've developed nothing like passion or fandom for them. Meanwhile, every cloying cliche in popular culture is leveraged to the hilt in up-close-and-personal segments and shallow op-eds and in-depth "investigations", while the host country spends itself into near bankruptcy for the sake of the corrupt few contractors who will benefit. If there were a ballot initiative to bring the Olympics to Michigan, that is probably one thing that might make me get involved in something political just to oppose it. It's nice to look at from afar, but not in my backyard.

And yet, my first thought when the games were over was that it might be a nice trip to the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo. I've always wanted to visit Japan, and you can be assured everything will be precise, clean, and efficient unlike the Rio shit-show. I'll be staring 60 in the teeth at that point so it could be a bucket list thing. For better or worse, the Olympics mark the years as much as the Super Bowl or the Tour de France. No point in fighting it.

[Good Links] Link Dump

Spanning the Web to bring you the constant variety of links; the thrill of memes and tropes, the agony of clickbait.
  • The robot revolution continues. Driveless cars are here, and it looks like Uber will be a the forefront, although the State of Michigan is making a bid to keep the auto research leadership. For their part, Vox is just now catching on to something I wrote about months ago. All the sound and fury in the election season has brought us no closer dealing with a world where there is no work for unskilled labor whatsoever.
  • Years ago I wrote a book called Misspent Youth where one of the underlying themes was the adult expectations placed on youth in the face of childish behavior from adults. This article seems to hit the same notes.
  • This exposition on the evolution of certain dog breeds was rather disturbing. The source of the problems with these breeds is essentially the same reason shelters are full of chihuahuas and pitbulls: The human narcissism. Stupid bimbos buy chihuahuas to project an image of trashy glamour, then dump them at the pound when it turns out that without proper training they pee in the glittery purses their carried in. Low IQ dirtbags raise pitbulls to signal their own fearsomeness, then dump them at the pound when they need more maintenance than an Ed Hardy t-shirt. The breeds in the articles have suffered in a different way, but for the same underlying reason -- using dogs as a lifestyle accessory without regard to their well-being. It's ugly because it hurts the dogs, yes, but also because it highlights a truly dark impulse of humanity.
  • The Chicago Tribune has a less snarky spin than I had about Ann Arbor last month. They even used the word "bubble" and they agree that it's a good bubble to be in.