Friday, October 07, 2016

The Month That Was - September 2016

This month marks the 28th rendition of my 29th birthday (do the math, if you must). I can no longer legitimately round down to a half century, and there is the constant, sobering knowledge that there are more years behind than ahead. Still, I'm hanging in there health-wise so no complaints allowed.

Apart from that, outside my trip to Moab, the month was pretty normal. I got a few more page written and did a good bit of training for another half marathon up on Mackinac. There was some upheaval at work, but that's over. Just my life, stumbling along.

[Travel] Cycling Through Moab
[Movies] Flick Check: Captain America: Civil War
[Books] Book Look: The Sleepwalkers

[Travel] Cycling Through Moab

This was my second trip to Moab, UT. The first was quite a few years ago, but the good memories of that trip remain clear in my mind, so it was a logical place to revisit. Moab is in the middle of nowhere. The closest major airport is Salt Lake City, a four-hour drive away. The next closest airport is Denver -- 6+ hours away. So yeah, the middle of nowhere. But. In this middle of nowhere, there are two remarkably beautiful national parks, one excellent state park, mountain biking trails beyond the wildest imagination of anyone back East, the Colorado River and associated rafting/kayaking, four-wheeler trails into some of the most remote areas of the country, rock climbing, and on and on. You will not find a gym in Moab; their gym is the outdoors.

The town of Moab itself is a bit of a bubble. Supported by the ongoing tourism of the parks and its reputation as the ultimate outdoor playground. While the towns that surround it are much more hardscrabble desert outposts, Moab has a good amount of services, food outlets, motels, etc., all on the lower end of things. There is nothing approaching fine dining or luxury accommodations -- nor should there be. People come here to be active, not hang out in their hotel rooms or lounge by the pool.

The last time I was here I availed myself of the National Parks. This time was dedicated to mountain biking. Now, I am not a terribly good mountain biker. I have been mountain biking a total of 4 times and these have been exploratory adventures, mostly to see if I wanted to take up mountain biking more seriously, as in drop something shy of a couple of grand on a mountain bike. (There are good trails in my area, and they are generally easier than ones around Moab.)

Moab is the center of the mountain biking universe. Biking on the rocky outcrops, called slickrock, is very different from the groomed trails and grassy fields back home. Climbs can be extreme and require a good bit of jumping. Paths can narrow between sharp boulders or skirt the edge of deadly dropoffs. And that's just the easy trails. The great thing about these trails is that they are exceptionally well marked. These aren't just trails out in the middle of nowhere that are roughly located on a map, there is clearly a professional organization in charge of keeping everything well sorted. And there are a ton of them. Check out this site for the lowdown: Discover Moab. My plan was to spend three days on the trails. Since it was still hot in the desert -- upper 80s -- I'd hit the trails early each day to be done by 2:30-3:00.

Day one: I headed to Dead Horse State Park and rode a long winding trail up to an overlook with remarkable views of the winding Colorado River. There were a few of dicey sections where I had to walk my bike over obstacles -- some of which I could see how to surmount if I was more skilled, some seemed impossible. At the top I made the acquaintance of a woman who drove to Moab from Indiana just to mountain bike but had to leave that day because she got the word that her cat was suffering separation anxiety and had stopped eating, and a young couple from Spain, the male portion of which had just bought a super expensive mountain bike of a type he couldn't get back in Spain. He seemed to be keen on having his picture taken with the bike, his wife just rolling her eyes. From the outlook you got a seriously fast and fun downhill back to the start. I was digging it.

Day two: I headed to some trails in an area called Klonzo, which I would have avoided had I known how far down a four wheel drive road they were. I was driving a rented Equinox, which handled it fine, but that document you sign when you rent a car says you promise not to take it off road. I should have parked a shorter way in and just rode the bike in, but I didn't think of that. Once I did get to the trails they were a blast. I started out on a very thin single track that circled through some hills; a bit scary because the soft dirt seemed like it was ready to give way and have me slide sideways down the slopes. Once through that section I found my way into a web a flat fast trails that were so much fun I barrelled through them twice. Because to the remoteness of these trails, I never saw another soul. I could have crashed and cracked my skull and no one would have found me for days. Comforting thought. From there I stopped on the way back to ride the Brand Trails. This set of trails is closest to town and it's always full of folks. The terrain is varied from rocky to well groomed singletrack. I could have spent to whole day exploring these. At one point I got way out on the far western end of the trials. Out there there is a path that leads you along the edge of a sheer drop of hundreds of feet and certain death. That's a remarkable experience -- knowing if you lose your balance you are dead. I could be happy never having that feeling again. I also reached a spot where I couldn't figure out how the trail looped around back to the start. I spent a few frustrating minutes trying to find the right directions but in the end I had to backtrack. When you are already exhausted, facing a backtrack is truly demoralizing, but then I stumbled on a shortcut back to the parking lot that was a series of short rolling hills that could get one airborne. Nice.

Day three: This was really the only fail of the trip. I tried to ride the Hurrah Pass, which is not so much a trail as a long dirt road along Kane Creek, a tributary of the Colorado River. The problem was that it starts with an impossibly long climb (miles). Now, on a road bike I could have managed it but a mountain bike is simply not an efficient thing, I was fatigued from the previous day's escapades, and we were up at elevation and my sea level lungs were not happy. I struggled up to nearly the top, within view of the tantalizing downhill on the other side, then realized that were I to barrel down I would eventually have to climb back up on the return trip. I paused to admire the view, headed back to my car, and returned the bike.

It was quite an adventure all the way around. I really like Moab. Definitely a top five place for me. The commercial area of town is walkable. There are plenty of quirky places for food and a beer. The busiest place is the Moab Brewery, because everywhere needs a brewpub. There is also a character-bar called Eddie McStiff's. Years ago when I visited Eddie's there were bizarre liquor laws in place such that they were only able to serve as a private club. When you sat down at the bar an existing member had to vouch for you to join before you could drink, so the bartender would turn to another patron who had previously been vouched for and ask if he would vouch for you. The answer was always yes and you were granted membership and your drink order was completed. You were likely to be asked to vouch for the next patron to come in. It was comically delightful. Those days are gone so presumably they now have a public liquor license. Took some of the fun out of it, but the food was good and the beer was cold.

So that's kind of the icing on the cake. You rise early and play hard in Moab, and your reward is a comfortable and enjoyable evening. Then you come home exhausted. What else could you ask for? I hope it won't be so many years until I can return again.

[Movies] Flick Check: Captain America: Civil War

Not really a Captain America movie as much as the close of an Avengers trilogy, Captain America: Civil War was great fun. My only question is whether the premise is more flawed than permissible. All action films have flawed premises that anchor the plot, but we accept them if they are plausible and fit in well with the characters. Civil War begins with the idea that The Avengers need oversight.

OK, I can see that. For all your good intentions and the scary powers of the bad guys, should there be some actual consideration given to whether the course of action you've (The Avengers) have chosen is the wisest? Look at it in the context of the previous films.

In 1, Loki has alien warriors primed to wreak havoc over the globe, the people in charge make the excruciating decision to nuke them out of existence and accept the casualties. But for some reason, Iron Man gets the final say. Just because a decision works out doesn't make it right. Why was that Tony Stark's call?

In 2, Cap is going to risk Sokovia being dropped from on high and possible destroy the human race rather than make the decision to accept casualties. Stupid. Who is he to make that call? His super soldier serum does not convey unearthly wisdom as far as I know. He justifies tis because he values the spirit of togetherness or something, but the human race may have held a different opinion.

Now, in Civil War, it comes back to bite them when the Scarlet Witch accidentally kills people in the line of duty, so General Ross and the whole world demand accountability. This makes a good deal of sense given the history, but Cap will have none of it. He can't accept control and goes rogue. This is the part I have trouble with. Steve Rogers is a soldier and has always put his country first, now suddenly he will not accept the due process his country wants to impose. Really? Wouldn't Tony Stark be the one more likely to self-justify going rogue. Rogers says they are still the best ones to make those decisions. I'm not sure I buy this sudden attraction to Platonic Utopianism. The only source of this I could see would be if the Shield fiasco tainted him for life. Nope, it strains the edge of plausibility given the characters involved.

That, for me, hovered over the whole movie and took a bit the the immersive joy out of it. But apart from that it was the usual Avengers movie, that is to say it was a blast. And, encouragingly, Spider Man stole the show, to the point that I am looking forward to his first proper Marvel movie. (If we could fold Deadpool into this we might achieve trigger the singularity.) Robert Downey Jr. also excelled too, he was given the meatiest storyline and made the most of it.

With this series it's easy to get jaded. You expect a top five action film every time out and so when you get it, you take it for granted. Like the previous films, this one is state of the art -- one of the best. In a world where sequels are factory-driven cash grabs, the Marvel Cinematic Universe has been a stunning achievement.

[Books] Book Look: Sleepwalkers, by Christopher Clark

I'm a closet World War 1 geek. Somewhere in my life I became fascinated not so much with the actual fighting and strategy as with the run up to the war. WW1 is considered by many as the seed of our contemporary world and investigating the cause is one of the most enduring occupations for historians. (Normal people have vanishingly little interest in this which is why I describe myself as a geek. That is to say, you may want to move on now unless you have insomnia.)

There are two common tropes about WW1 that constitute the common knowledge as it is taught to schoolboys (if it is still taught to schoolboys, or if schoolboys are still a thing). First, that while the assassination of Franz Ferdinand was the trigger, if it wasn't that, it would have been something else; war was inevitable because of nature of the politics and the biases of the people in power. Second, that the bulk of the culpability falls to Germany. Clark does an excellent job of busting through these shallow narratives.

With respect to the first, he brings the focus right back on the bubbling cauldron of mayhem that were the Balkans (and perhaps still are). One cannot read his description of the times without finding the Balkans to be a group of countries peopled by sociopaths in the service of ghosts. It really is astonishing to have the nearly cartoonish levels of insanity described so well. We see that the well worn narrative that the act of a terrorist without Serbian ties triggered and unacceptable ultimatum to an innocent people is well nigh bollocks. Serbia did back the assassination and the ultimatum wasn't that terrible. But we also see that crises in the Balkans were not a new thing to the major powers and when push came to shove previously wars were kept contained. That's pretty much the state of the world at any time -- yet for some reason when we look at with hindsight we see inevitability. There was no such thing.

With respect to the second, Clark demonstrates how the forces that triggered violent reactions among the great powers did not emanate exclusively from Germany. In fact, many of the policies of Germany were in direct reaction to the actions of the Franco-Russian Entente. Russia, with their delusions of pan-Slav leadership, made it clear they would back Serbia if Austria-Hungary attacked, emboldening the sociopaths. France made it clear they would support Russia out of their fear that they could not match Germany in a war without a second front. It is true that there were forces in the German High Command that argued they should initiate a war urgently, while it still could be won, but that attitude in itself was sourced from the Franco-Russian alliance. When it was all said and done, the narrative putting Germany at fault was a foregone conclusion, and we all know how well that worked out.

For the sake of full disclosure, I should point out that Clark comes pretty close to my own bias, which is that the responsibility falls on the the loathsome cretin Apis and his Serbian Black Hand, and more specifically on ignorant tool Princip and the Young Bosnians. My biases may cause me to overlook some of the shortcomings of the book. Clark can give a vivid account of events, but for the bulk of the book he hops around quite a bit, organizing things conceptually but the level of detail and causal events would have benefited with a some clearer context of the relative points in time of the events into which he deep dives. It's hard to get a full picture in your head of any particular moment. Also, there is an sore-thumb passage where Clark decries that the problem is that the leaders were all men and if women were around things would be different. Very out of place in an otherwise serious work of history.

Should you read The Sleepwalkers? Probably not, unless you are WW1 geek like me. If you are, it is indispensable and you'd be missing out on a key perspective were you to skip it.