Sunday, May 08, 2016

The Month That Was - April 2016

I am in the midst of Spring preparations. I have decided to have a good bit of landscaping done, by professionals because experience has taught me that I am pretty much incapable of doing anything on any scale without wasting hundreds of dollars and untold weekends making stupid mistakes that professionals have already made and so don't need to learn again. The sad thing is that professionals are in high demand and are not always on your timetable. I know we have all heard about how awful it is for anyone looking for work as unskilled labor. But skilled labor -- tradesmen -- is in short supply. (There's probably a post in that.) Anyway, my yard looks like hell at the moment and it's going to be a couple of weeks at the soonest until they get to it. I think I am also going to try to get my house painted this year, but we'll see about that -- at this point it sounds like it might just turn out to be some fresh hell.

I am also about to have house guests for a month or so. I am considering hiring a housekeeper to come in every couple of weeks, but like most people, I want the house to be clean before I show it to the potential housekeeper which is truly silly, but undeniable.

Writing has slacked in the face of all this activity. It will pick up again. I am currently writing fiction at about the slowest rate I ever have. I'm lucky to get a couple of hours a week in at this point. Don't know when that will change, but it must. Maybe when I retire.

[Ann Arbor] Burrito Guidance
[Tech] Windows Phone, Vaya Con Dios
[Rant] Maybe It's Better
[Movies] Weak Force

[Ann Arbor] Burrito Guidance

This post will mean nothing to you unless you live in or around Ann Arbor. Non-homies can move along.

As a public service I thought I would provide the definitive rankings of fast burritos in town, since I know many people are paralyzed by the uncertainty where they should get their burritos. You're welcome.

  1. Chipotle -- Locations at Briarwood, on campus on State St., Washtenaw near Platt. Yes, the most common and popular is also the best. There is just something about the meat here. (No, not the bacteria, smart ass.) Great and powerful meat flavors mean you should probably get a bowl instead of a tortilla, since the tortillas are only average. And you should go easy on the fixin's. But, oh, that combination of Carnitas with Salsa Verde! I am convinced there is a secret ingredient in there. Probably crack.
  2. Pancheros -- Location in the new shops in front of Ann Arbor-Saline Meijers. A close second, but you must get the tortilla; a bowl would defeat the purpose. They grill them up upon your order and you can taste the difference. The stuffings are good quality, although crack-free. Fajita veggies can be added to any burrito for a buck. You should always add fajita veggies to your burrito as they are known to cancel out some of the fat calories.
  3. Qdoba -- Locations on Main and Ann Arbor Saline, North Campus on Plymouth Rd., Washtenaw in front of Barnes and Noble. Qdoba has some slightly different flavors that are a nice change, like ancho chile BBQ and spicy queso. Because of that, Qdoba is a good place for some non-burrito stuff - the tortilla soup comes to mind. Unless I'm mistaken, guac and fajita veggies are free which makes this a good budget choice.
  4. Moe's -- Location in the Colonnade, corner of Eisenhower and Ann Arbor-Saline Rd. -- The food is just meh, but there is a salsa bar, with including one with a nice garlicky flavor called Kaiser Salsa, so if you get a bowl or are OK with ripping open your burrito you can have some fun with flavors. Also they'll give you all the tortilla chips you can eat for free, so if you are are coming off a fast or a juice cleanse or a kale detox or some such, this is the place.
I'd be remiss if I didn't at least mention Taco Bell. I know, I know. Listen you can get a couple variations of burritos off the dollar menu. Thrown in a drink and you're out the door for around four-fiddy. This is a remarkable humanitarian service. Honestly, I don't know why we send food assistance to third-world countries when we could just set up Taco Bells. Besides, Taco Bell is kind of like White Castle. There is no point in rationalizing it. There are times when it simply must be done.

Note I haven't touched on tacos here, only burritos. For tacos you are better off hitting one of the more genuine Mexican shops: Chela's, Taco King, Tmaz, El Manantial. But that's for a different post.

[Tech] Windows Phone, Vaya Con Dios

Took me a long time, but I finally said goodbye to Windows Phone. I was not happy to do it, but I was compelled by happenstance and reality. Verizon, my former carrier, has made it clear that they are no longer interested in supporting Windows Phone. It took us well over a year after its release to upgrade us to version 8. Version 10 has been out for a while and there was no word from Verizon on an expected update -- I suspect they never will, hoping Windows Phone will just die out of their line up.

The larger reason, and one that I am sure would not go away, is the legendary app gap. Windows Phone has less than 2% of the market. No one is going to write any more apps for it and the existing apps will likely never get updated.

So I was facing a choice between Android and Apple. I am not an Apple fan. My few interactions with them in the laptop arena were a disaster. Years ago I regularly tried to buy music from iTunes and found it unusable. And you can always count on iAnything to be overpriced. It was going to be Android for me.

The upside of that is that I was able to kill Verizon and get on the nascent Google Fi carrier service. Google Fi is both cheap and interesting. First, it does a very clever thing whereby it uses either the Sprint network, the T-Mobile network, or Wi-fi, whichever signal is strongest, for all functions, including talk and text. That's pretty cool. It's also very innovative (and inexpensive) with respect to data: You are billed for a certain amount of data per month -- in my case 1GB which, along with unlimited talk and text, costs me $30 per month. But the cool thing is after the month is over they adjust your next month's bill to match the amount of data you actually used: up or down. That's right, they actually credit you for unused data, in real money, on the next bill. That is astounding.

To get this service you have to buy a Google Nexus phone, which I did -- a Nexus 5x. The knock on the Nexus 5x is battery life and while I had an early scare on that front, I think it was mostly because I needed to update the system multiple times and about 20 apps to get them current. Since then, it's been on par with my previous Nokia, still that only puts it on par with a 4 year old phone.

The real downside is the fact that the Android operating system is a usability dumpster fire. The elegant and beautifully simple tile interface of Windows Phone is forever gone, replaced with a haphazard stew of icons and notifications of varying shapes and sizes, none of which are consistent or discoverable. It is abysmal. I'm sure given the abundance of apps and services around Android I will eventually be able to get my phone to be as convenient as Windows Phone. But it's gonna take a while until I figure it all out.

As an interface, Android is a big step backwards and it's kind of sad that it is everyone's default experience through sheer numbers. Something tells me it's going to be many years before someone puts a coherent face on it. Maybe Microsoft?

[Rant] Maybe It's Better

I spend a fair amount of time on here making wry commentary about the direction of culture and its absurdities and how everyone should get off my lawn. But it's always important to try to put yourself in the shoes of those you can't understand so, as an exercise, I shall try to make positive arguments for the bizarre world our contemporary culture is building.

Maybe it's better they live in mortal terror of offending anyone. As some commentators have pointed out, it's pretty much impossible to fine-tune social interaction to the exactly correct balance of freedom of expression versus freedom from offense. Maybe the past was too far to one direction. Maybe political correctness, while leaning decidedly in the other direction, is somewhat better overall.

Maybe it's better their cars will drive themselves. The time will come when your grandchild looks at you incredulously and says, "You mean you aimed the car yourself and just went around crashing into each other?" That is to say perhaps the lives saved are worth the loss of the driving experience, however elemental it seems to us old folks.

Maybe it's better that every topic is open for public discussion. Being able to openly use the most profane language and freely discuss your sexual proclivities and bodily fluids in public, and see accurate fictional portrayals on screen as family entertainment, well, it's not for me. Perhaps, though, life is less stressful and more honest with fewer personal secrets to keep and mysteries to maintain. Who says reticence is a virtue?

Maybe it's better they are never out of sight of their parents until they go to college. They'll struggle with things like how to size up a stranger quickly, how to defuse a threatening situation when you are at a disadvantage, and generally how to gauge and evaluate danger. But isn't it better to learn self-sufficiency later in life than to be scarred or dead because you couldn't learn quickly enough as a child.

Maybe it's better that they don't bother reading unless it's a caption for something visual. Is there any non-prejudiced reason that written communication is better than visual. I mean, the Egyptians were all pictures and they lasted for thousands of years.

Maybe it's better to have an alphabet of genders. It's conveivable that being able to align your innate sexualtiy with 51 choices instead of just boy or girl could alleviate some behavioral compromises and make you more comfortable in your own skin.

Maybe it's better that politicians are unashamed of their behavior. We spent years with lawyers as politicians doing terrible things in private, how do we know shameless celebrities will be any worse?

Maybe it's better that every action is recorded for all time. Perhaps the New Golden Rule -- "Never do anything in public you wouldn't want to see on YouTube" -- will be more effective than the old one.

Maybe it's better that popular music entirely consists of assembly-line pop, R&B divas howling about empowerment, and illiterate, obscene, hateful rappers. Um...no. Sorry Millennials, there's no redeeming this one. You've ruined music. Full stop.

Whew. I can now pat myself on the back for being so open-minded. The world as it's currently constituted is certainly not to my taste, and it's only going to get worse. But then it's not my world to say how it should be and whining is no virtue for an old man. The world is like a rip tide. There is no point in fighting it, just swim athwart it until somehow you can escape.

To keep perspective, just think: In a couple hundred years somebody will create a mind-downloadable editorial entitled Maybe it's Better to be a Brain in a Jar.

[Movies] Weak Force

Star Wars: The Force Awakens is as bad as the reviews say. Well, it's not bad so much as it is just not there. There's nothing to it. It is, as most people have pointed out, A New Hope mildly re-arranged, with a touch of Empire... here and there. The is no snap to the dialogue, no compelling technical achievement. The new female Luke is bland as hell. The new black Han is a bit of a doofus. The new Darth is dweeb. The old Leia gets nothing to do that let's her have the fire of the old Leia. The old Han is about the only saving grace. After all the years, Harrison Ford can still pull off the role and frankly, when he's not on the screen the film becomes background noise.

Aside: J.J. Abrams needs a win desperately. Let's face it, it's been a decade since Alias and Lost, and the trend line of his movie production career has been on a slow decline. His work on the Mission Impossible films has been solid, but Star Trek has been spotty and I have heard nothing encouraging about the upcoming one. He's in danger of falling into Michael Bay territory.

But back to The Force Awakens. The main problem is we don't feel any affinity for the new characters. They are pretty much cardboard. We know their motivations because we have been told, but we don't believe them because, well, we've only been told, not shown. I have some sympathy; we have been spoiled by years of quality TV where you can take nearly a full season to develop characters. You need incredibly talented writers who can genuinely define and motivate a character in about two scenes and five minutes for a movie to work. (Note 1: Say what you want about George Lucas (he probably deserves it) but halfway through A New Hope we were fully invested emotionally in Luke, Han and Leia. Note 2: Captain America, Thor, and Iron Man had stand-alones to create themselves and connect with the audience so the ensemble opera could begin at full speed.) Instead we get about three minutes of the flimsiest background on Finn, Rey, and Poe which is somehow supposed to justify their strong loyalty and friendship with each other. The net result is that these characters aren't real or appealing, they don't respond to motivation so much as get just puppeteered around to generate set action sequences. (Han and Leia come off better because we already know them.)

And it's worse than just the shallow characters. As with the other recent disappointing come-back, Jurassic World, this was not so much a sequel as a remake. Not just in plot, but in concept and production. From tropes to camera angles to effects, there is nothing we haven't seen thousand times in the previous decades. What would make anyone think that a 20th century-style blockbuster will make it today? Have they not seen The Avengers?