Wednesday, June 07, 2017

The Month That Was - May 2017

Warmth is slowly returning. Virtually all my plantings from the previous year have survived and bloomed. All my flowering trees were bursting with color. My many-times-replanted peonies came around strong. Even my indoor rose bush exploded with flowers (encouraging after last year's anemic output). And it's only going to get better as the plant fill out even more.

Lots of travel for me this month. Asheville, NC for the first time (described below). Saugatuck for the first time in years. And a quick run to Sarasota to see my brother. All three trips were swamped with rain. I have to say I have had generally very good luck with weather in my travels, but it finally caught up to me.

I did no work whatsoever on my writing project. For that I feel shame. As far as readings go, I have started My Struggle by Karl Ove Knausgaard. Over the past few years this book has been something of a literary sensation in Europe and, to a much lesser extent, over here. I'm mildly enjoying it, but so far I don't see the exceptionality that everybody else does. More later.

[Travel] Rainy Days in Asheville
[Movies] Flick Check: Logan
[Cars] Acura Shakes

[Travel] Rainy Days in Asheville

The plan was to run a 15k race through the famed Biltmore Estate then spend a couple of days exploring. I had heard a lot about Asheville and its combination arty, hipster vibe and backwoods setting. That checks out. Asheville is in fact very similar to Ann Arbor, but with mountains. And better weather in the winter. You can verify it's hipster legitimacy by the foodie/locavore scene. And the stunningly green mountains are just like in the pictures. Sadly, though, it rained for close to the entire duration of my trip.

I flew into Asheville's small regional airport that reminded me how much I love flying into small regional airports. It required a plane change in Atlanta that resulted in me being sat next to a very sweet and polite Asian woman who happened to have an infant in her lap. A screaming, crying infant. In the past that would have bothered me, but no more. Now I make faces and goofy noises or do whatever I can to try to help. It' a baby after all, it's not like she can reason with it, and besides, it is quite probable that at some point in my life, I was the screaming baby. From the airport it was a quick car rental and short 20 minute drive to my hotel.

Asheville seems to be a collection of a few neighborhood areas that try to be walkable and have personalities. Not a half mile walk from my hotel was Biltmore Village (formerly called Best Village). It is peppered with fairly high end boutiques and a couple of very good restaurants. It is clearly designed as a walkable outdoor shopping center, sort of an anti-mall mall. It's very nice and convenient, if nothing all that special; certainly not a destination in itself.

Then there is the River Arts District, which is a paradigmatic artist enclave with galleries in old, repurposed factories and warehouses, and of course, the requisite character filled restaurants.

There is Biltmore Forest, which is a famed residential area. Time was your couldn't build a house here unless one of the Vanderbilt family (founders of the Biltmore Estate) approved. Now that Asheville has become a spot where celebrities can go to feel rustic but luxurious, it's the neighborhood where they build -- they say Harrison Ford is building a property now.

Lastly there is downtown which is hipster trendy -- brewpubs, art galleries, tapas bars, etc. It's a pretty cool place to wander about. Very Ann Arbor-ish, if a bit smaller and with more hills.

My personal experience with Asheville was a very wet. It rained to no small extent every day I was there. The 15k race was rained on start to finish. After the race I headed downtown to refuel and spent the bulk of my time under an umbrella. I did managed an informative visit to the Lexington Glassworks to see the rather fascinating glassblowing in action. Lunch was a mouthwateringly delicious burger at Foggy Bottom Brewery. But let's face it, I'm from Ann Arbor so I know my way around a hipster town. Nice as it was, there were no surprises for me downtown, so I didn't dawdle.

The following day I took a drive south along the famed Blue Ridge Parkway. I stopped at several overlooks and managed to down a bit further south to famed Looking Glass Falls. It is as beautiful as advertised -- the old, worn, rolling mountains of Appalachia covered in a thick verdant carpet of foliage. There is a real sense of being in the deep eternal woods, the roads and towns like oases in the endless forest. I can see how a certain stripe of people would be quite happy with a cabin in the woods, self-sufficient and far from civilization, and vow to defend it against the onslaught of progress, viz., people like me.

My last day I revisited the Biltmore Estate -- this time spending the day and taking the tours. As someone who has seen historic estates across the country, Biltmore is at the top of the list. The grounds are sprawling and astonishingly beautiful. Designed by the same fellow who designed Central Park, Frederick Olmstead, it is riddled with gardens and managed horticulture all with an eye to long term structure -- much of the landscaping came to fruition after the death of the designer. It is a tribute to the ability of flora and natural settings to affect emotional tone and general attitude.

The house itself, while impressive from the outside in a Welcome-to-Hell-House kind of way, is more pedestrian inside, notable mostly for its scope -- it contains 43 bathrooms, after all. It's presentation is rather poor, mostly due to the inexplicably low level of lighting. Honestly, is some rooms, you can barely make out the far walls.

Again it's the estate proper that is the source of entertainment. A working farm and winery. Two luxury hotels and a small village are all contained on the 8000 acres. It would be perfect for a day of cycling the paths and photography, if it wasn't pouring rain.

Even in the rain, though, Asheville had its charms. I wasn't totally enamoured, but I was charmed enough to give it another shot -- maybe in the fall for the colors and with the hope of sunshine. There is much left to explore here.

[Movies] Flick Check: Logan

Logan is certainly the best of the X-men series, excluding Deadpool of course, because like the cheese, he stands alone. In his case, Velveeta. Probably.

Logan still has evidence of the X-men's most glaring issue, which is that it leans so heavily on class warfare and oppression for motivation. You see, Logan is set in 2029 and naturally everything is dystopian. In this dystopia, there is a wall between the U.S. and Mexico, separating the good-hearted oppressed from the evil oppressors. Greedy, power-hungry corporations run the U.S. with have their own paramilitaries and no sign of government or law to hold them in check. Our heroes' mission is to make it to Canada where they will be treated with tolerance and understanding. Basically, it's the fevered worldview of your standard Twitter/Reddit poster or Huffington Post/Buzzfeed columnist. People might argue that such a vision resonates with Millennials, or some key demographic that isn't me, and that the only reason I don't see it is because I am a grizzled, detached fuddy-duddy. Fair enough.

But compare this to the gold standard Avengers who want nothing but to Save the World rather than scold it. The Avengers drama comes from having the weight of trying to save the world on the shoulders of a group of people who know they need each other, but aren't really all that fond of each other. That's a personal story, a group dynamic story. How about an even more personal action film? John Wick doesn't care about tolerance. He doesn't even care about saving the world. You and everyone you know will get a bullet in the head because YOU STOLE HIS CAR AND YOU KILLED HIS DOG. I'll take personal motives over political poses in my drama every time.

Yet this why Logan is the best of the X-Men movies. Despite my rant, the cautionary dystopian blather takes a back seat to the characters. Gone are the X-Men who don't matter, which is all of them except Wolverine and Professor X. Honestly now, who really gave a possum's posterior about the others? They were cardboard.

And after setting up the whole class warfare dystopia to justify the fight scenes, the core of the movie comes down to those two characters, both aging poorly. Professor X in the throes of Alzheimer's provides some meat for Patrick Stewart to sink his teeth into. It's not the pitch perfect crazy old man we saw in Star Trek TNG's "All Good Things", but it beats the hell out of the soul crushing exposition he has been given in the previous films. Jackman for his part keeps up, although his character's emotional range tends to be angry-and-depressed or angry-and-violent, but he too is dying, evidently poisoned by his metal skeleton. Nobody here is terribly good at comedy, so attempts at light-hearted interludes are only marginally successful, but then it's not a lighthearted movie. In the end, over the course of the series, it is about two people who fought to death for something without achieving it. They know it, and see it, and even their final battle was merely to keep the status quo. After all their efforts and pain, they left the mutants in exactly the same place they entered, with an isolated, fragile sanctuary. It is as if their lives were for naught. The image of a futile future will likely resonate with the aforementioned hand-wringing demographic, also.

As for my view of the future, well, John Wick: Chapter 2 should be streaming soon...

[Cars] Acura Shakes

My car has become a source of stress. About 15,000 miles ago it developed a disturbing vibration at freeway speeds -- 65-70 mph. I put on a new set of tires at the behest of the dealer and that reduced it, but never eliminated it. Subsequent visits to to the dealer have just had them tell me that I need new tires again. Um, no. Sorry but if that's the best you got, you're phoning it in.

I now have an appointment with an independent mechanic. I suspect one way or another the problem will get solved eventually, but it's left a bad taste in my mouth regarding Acura.

I know that my Acura TL is essentially a gussied up Accord. It has more sound deadening, a bit better interior materials and a high level of base componentry, the engine is tuned for better performance (and thus requires premium gas), it's built in Japan instead of Marysville OH, but other than that it's an Accord.

What you are also supposed to get with Acura is the premium customer service experience. I have seen nothing of that. The folks at the dealership are very polite and personable. Not surprisingly, the dealership is generally less crowded and has a more pleasant atmosphere than one of the big mass market dealerships. But that's about it. It has no more generous a policy regarding loaners. They do wash and vacuum your car anytime you bring it in but that's a fairly trivial sacrifice and the local Ford dealer does that also. The mechanical capabilities of the dealer shop are suspect, as are most dealer garages.

I will say that apart from the vibration issue the car is a astonishing great. It has no rattles or squeaks, the engine is strong and smooth, the transmission is pretty much unnoticeable, and it handles with an agility far beyond my capability to disrupt it. The electronics are a bit of a weak spot -- it struggles to communicate with my phone, nav system is only so-so -- but that is likely because it is old generation tech. If the vibration problem hadn't forced me to re-evaluate, I'd probably be delighted with the car, but one bad experience forces you to look more closely at things.

As usual, I find myself working through decisions in the course of a blog post. I have in my head the idea that if the independent mechanic gets the problem sorted, even if temporarily, I'll trade the car in on something new rather than risk the vibrations returning. There are some advantages to this. I have been feeling the need for a little more utility, by which I mean something that can carry my bike without a bike rack and that I can take to Menard's without the need to tie down my trunk half open. I am absolutely not a fan of SUVs, CUVs, XUVs, etc., but there are aspects of convenience I can't deny. Or if I really want a premium customer experience, I'm told Lexus or Mercedes is the way to go. That suggests my ideal vehicle would be a Lexus or Mercedes SUV that is just big enough to carry my bike. A dark horse would be a Lincoln version of the Ford Escape (the correct random three-letter name of the model escapes me).

Here I thought this Acura had an outside chance of being the last car I owned before I bought a car that drove me. Then my place of employment moved, adding 20 miles a day to my commute. If it's to be replaced it should be replaced now before it totally depreciates.

On the other hand, I hate buying a car. Just hate the whole process. I hate it so much I have to stop right here to avoid going on a 1000-word rant. So I guess I'm saying if I do end up getting a new car, brace yourself for a string of auto dealer hate posts. Lucky you.

Sunday, May 07, 2017

The Month That Was - April 2017

I have been planning to get somewhere in the path of full totality for the August solar eclipse, and my ideal spot was Jackson hole WY -- small chance of clouds, beautiful backdrops. All hotels are booked of course, but I spotted a perfect Airbnb in town center. I was geeked! Of course by the time I got myself signed up for Airbnb and made sure the dates would work with flights, it got taken out from under me. Bastards. Now if I want to stay anywhere near Jackson Hole I would have to drop multiple thousands of dollars. Arrgh! The hell with 'em. I'm back on the hunt for another locale.

I can stay too upset. Spring is here and beautiful as always. Of course, that means to house projects begin. Painters and landscapers and window repair, oh my.

[Movies] Rogue One
[Tech] Routers and Laptops and Chromebooks
[Rant] My Old School

[Movies] Rogue One

It is the most adult of the Star Wars films; less cartoonish characters; a good solid action flick (but not on a Marvel Studios level). Interesting -- a friend of mine doesn't want her Star Wars obsessed 7-year-old to watch this because she thinks it's too dark, which I suppose it is considering what happens to all the characters.

It is admirable, however. In A New Hope we were given the macguffin of plans to the death star which Leia hides in R2D2 -- "Help me Obi Wan Kenobi, you're my only hope" -- eventually leading to Luke's trench run in his X-Wing. Rogue One the story of how those plans got to Leia. Admirable because, there was a great cost in life to be payed for them. Unlike other Star Wars films where the good guy deaths are of characters to which you have no attachment or ones who for whom it is obvious their time has come, in Rogue One the ultimate sacrifices are on a relatable level, which is why you might want to think twice about letting a 7-year-old see it. It's nice to see someone looking at the cost of things. I'm reminded of George R. R, Martin's motivation behind the gritty reality of Song of Fire and Ice.
"You see that at the end of the ['Lord of the Rings'] books, when Sauron has been defeated and Aragorn is king," Martin told the Advance. "It's easy to type, 'he ruled wisely and well,' but what does that constitute? What was his tax policy? How did the economy function? What about the class system?

"The orcs," he continued. "There are still tens and thousands of orcs at the end of 'Lord of the Rings.' Did he pursue a policy of genocide toward them? Or did he reach out and try to educate them and bring them into the mainstream and civilize them? We never get answers to any of these questions. We just get 'he ruled wisely and well.'"
Thanks to Rogue One you've now got more than "Rebel spies managed to steal secret plans."

Unlike the other films, these characters are shaded grey, not mythical constructs of good and evil. The android comic relief is actually funny this time, and uniquely, there can be no sequel (although I suppose a prequel is possible). There is some silliness, of course, for merchandising purposes and the callbacks to the trilogy are awkward and unnecessary, but apart from that, it is one of those well-crafted, entertaining action films that this era of civilization will one day be famous for. Worth seeing, even if you're just lukewarm on Star Wars.

[Tech] Routers and Laptops and Chromebooks

But first, I had to replace my router. I have horrible luck with routers. They rarely last me more than a year. I had one, made by SMC, that lasted nearly a decade, but all the others have failed just outside their warranty period, just like the TP-link Archer C7 that came so highly recommended did last week. Sigh. So I splurged on a expensive Netgear job. It is noticeably faster. We'll see how long it lasts.

That solved half my connection problems, the other half being a problem with the wi-fi adapter in my laptop. Also my laptop has developed very annoying inaccuracies in the trackpad. As if some of the sensors are broken or confused -- no response to clicks, or right clicks when I should be getting lefts.

It's clear, the time has come for a new laptop, which sounds like something I would have said 10 years ago. We now live a world where various shapes and sizes of mobile devices allow for a better functional fit than a laptop, which was, and still, conceived as a do it all computer. So what exactly are my needs?

Well, virtually everything I do, I do on the web with one exception -- maybe one and a half.

1) Photoshop -- actually Photoshop Elements. Two or three times a year I travel somewhere with my DSLR and when I get back I need to edit the RAW files for publishing on my Smugmug site. Although there are numerous web based photo editors, none can do the things that Photoshop Elements can, especially with RAW. For this I also need a Core I7 level processor, and the ability to drive a full sized monitor at reasonably high res.

1.5) I still have stored MP3s that I use for my running playlists and disconnected listening. I need to load them onto my little SanDisk player and my old Windows Phone as a dedicated MP3 player. This only counts as a half because I'm sure I could sort things out so that I could store all my music on one of the streaming services. Hell, it may already be there without my realizing it (thanks, Google, or maybe Amazon!). But as it stands it takes 32gb to store them (and on rare occasions download more). Arguably, I could use a streaming service with the old Nokia/Windows phone, but not the little San Disk which is not connected in any way and doesn't even have bluetooth. Even so, I suspect this problem is solvable, if disruptive.

If it weren't for those, I could snag a Chromebook on the cheap and have everything I needed. I do all my writing, my finances, etc. on the web already. Anything I do when travelling involves the web also.

I might get away with a tablet, I suppose, but that would require a bluetooth keyboard for writing and at that point it will likely be more expensive than a good Chromebook.

Phones are too limited in viewing size and, especially, for typing.

So it seems I have a choice between a laptop and a combination of a Chromebook and a desktop (planning to reuse my current full size monitor either way). But wait! One problem with a Chromebook is browser selection. I have come to admire a new and little known browser called Vivaldi; that'll be Right Out. There may be other compatibility issues. I also worry about speed with the underpowered browsers. Maybe the thing to do is pick up a Chromebook and see how it works. It'll probably be less than $400. I can use my current laptop as a desktop until then. If I find the Chromebook to be sufficient, I can snag an inexpensive I7 based desktop. Maybe I'll give that a shot. Amazon will let me return it if it turns out to be unworkable, won't they?

To further confuse things, Microsoft is said to be coming out with a Chromebook alternative -- a cheap laptop-y thing with a version of Windows that works online only like Chrome OS. Or maybe I should just get a real laptop and be done with it.

Obviously writing this post has not clarified my needs. The world shouldn't be this complicated.

[Rant] My Old School

A year after it happened, word dribbled down to me that my high school -- Southfield-Lathrup High -- was closing. Although the building will still house a high school it won't be the one I went to. It is being replaced by what appears to be a some sort of "college prep" track school. Time for more reminiscing.

When I was a teen, there were two public high schools in Southfield, Michigan: Southfield High, and Southfield-Lathrup High. 1) Southfield High was older and pretty damn close to the Detroit border. It was not a nice place and kept an on-site police presence (a rarity in the suburbs in those days). 2) Southfield-Lathrup High (my alma mater), was newer, cleaner, further from Detroit and therefore more safe. It was a standard issue late 70s high school. Freaks and Geeks featured a mid-Michigan suburban high school of that era and got it pretty much correct.

Southfield-Lathrup is now University High School and claims a "rigorous and differentiated college preparatory curriculum" making it the spot for anyone with promise. Southfield High is now Southfield High School for Arts and Technology whose mission is "To prepare all students with the knowledge and skills necessary to become life-long learners and contributing members of a global society" so it's the place for average joes. And there is now a third option, Southfield Regional Academic Campus which "houses two programs designed to graduate students on-time with their class," meaning this is not where you want to be.

Perhaps apropos of nothing, despite the use of multi-racial stock footage on their websites, all three schools are effectively entirely black. As is Southfield itself. It is in fact, often cited as a prime example of a successful, predominantly black, middle-class suburb.

When I was in high school, everything was about inclusiveness and diversity. We had various programs to force kids of all stripes to interact in the hopes of increasing empathy. As far as I remember there was no effort to differentiate kids academically in any way as that would have been -- elitist? divisive? I don't know, but the supposition was that by forcing you to interact with kids who were not of your ethnicity, economic class, or academic level, you would learn tolerance and understanding. (Mind you this was 1974-1978, a time which popular culture today would have you believe was only marginally better than slavery.) We believed doing such things made us good people, even though forcing kids into those situations probably caused more resentment and hostility than tolerance. It was akin to forcing bully and victim together in the hopes they would come to respect and appreciate each other. It's not how life works, but that wasn't what counted. We were being good. It was all very well intentioned, as most counterproductive public policies are. Happily, I don't think anyone sees much value in that sort of thing anymore. But we still have to believe everyone just needs time together to understand each other to achieve harmony or we are no longer good. How do we reconcile this? How do we stop strong-arming kids into bitter inclusiveness but not abandon the principle we value so much?

The answer is through words. If we can no longer separate kids based on ethnicity or social class or intellect, we can on the basis of their goals. It's pretty clear that if you are an ambitious, capable child with engaged parents who is headed for college you are going to shoot for University High School. If your future amounts to some classes at the community college before you end up working in a mediocre public works job, meanwhile you're just happy to play on the basketball team and hang with your friends, you'll end up at Southfield Arts and Tech. If you're measurably dysfunctional or an outright criminal, you'll end up at the Academic Campus where, unless you are one of the unlikely few who straightens up, you will be looked after for a few hours a day to keep you out of trouble until your eighteenth birthday at which point you'll likely end up in and out of jail for the rest of your life.

In other words, we have successfully segregated the students (a practical need) and we have done it without referring to their social status or native intelligence (so we can still be good). If you think the spectrum of students at the three schools won't accurately track IQ and socioeconomic status, you're fooling yourself, but since the differentiation is based on academic goals -- college prep or fair-to-middlin' or avoid-arrest -- we're covered, we can still be good in our own eyes. Aren't we clever these days? I mean that sincerely. I think is good and positive and frankly I wish we had something like this back when I was in there. The plain reason being that troubled students will drag the good students down, but good students do not elevate bad students -- either academically in the realm of socialization -- as everybody hopes and dreams will happen.

That is, I think, one of the very important lessons I learned in high school: On equal terms, bad destroys good. The barbarians are always at the gate.

The fact that the school district is mono-racial makes this a lot easier. If the college track was mostly Asian, the standard track mostly White, and the remedial track mostly Black, all Hell would break loose. Had this been tried during my years there, the college track would have been majority Jewish and wealthier Gentiles, the standard track solidly middle class Gentile, and the remedial track split between the poorer Gentiles and Chaldeans (there were never more than one or two Asians or Blacks in my day). Had we let that happen we would not have been good people, would we?

Theoretically, as you get older, your memories are supposed to mellow. If anything, my feelings about high school have gotten worse. I have zero good memories from high school. Not a single one. Not a friendship or a teacher stands out as a valued memory. To me, it was nothing but a frothing pit of delusion, dysfunction, and sociopathy as described above. The only thing of value I got from my time there was the strength that comes from something that doesn't kill you. I never returned after I graduated and am glad it's gone now. Good riddance, Southfield-Lathrup High School.

Friday, April 07, 2017

The Month That Was - March 2017

It was the best of months, it was the worst of months. It was actually a month like most others. I managed to duck off to Key West for a few days in search of some head clearing and skull scrubbing. Don't think I was successful at that but I did enjoy the sunshine.

We've had a fairly mild winter but this month brought a savage windstorm that had some folks without power for days. I only lost power briefly, but the wind managed to pull down three 20+ foot spruce trees in my yard. All said and done it's going to be about $1200 to remove them and grind the stumps. Insurance will cover precisely $500. And that doesn't include the cost of replanting trees there, which I know from past experience to be very expensive. Compound that with the fact that I am getting the exterior painted along with some four digit window repair and....ugh. I should just sell the damn house.

I did make some writing progress. I would say I am about 41.67% done with the first draft (all numbers approximate). More importantly I've got a decent handle on where to go next -- as you recall, plotting is the most difficult part of writing for me. I have to keep reminding myself that once the first draft is done, however lousy it is, all that's left is re-writing an edit, which are orders of magnitude easier than writing.

[Books] Book Look: Man on the Run, Paul McCartney in the 1970s
[TV] Toob Notes
[Rant] A Vanishing

[Books] Book Look: Man on the Run, Paul McCartney in the 1970s, by Tom Doyle

It was an odd set of circumstances that led me to this book, starting with a post I made on this site that referred to the first album I ever purchased with my own money, "Band on the Run", by Paul McCartney. I don't remember the exact path I followed but it ended up with me reading this biography of McCartney in the 70s. Much interesting info to be had here. I'll just highlight some random observations.
  • McCartney seems to be a true eccentric
  • He really, really likes (liked?) his weed.
  • Overall he is filled with contradictions
    • An inveterate pot snarfing hippie who is also a solid family man
    • An impossible wealthy dude who likes a pauper's home life
    • A shrewd and frugal business man who can be a babe in the woods in the real world
    • A man who can (and often does) write, sing, and play all the instruments on his songs but desperate wants a collaborator
    • He is known for silly love songs but is actually responsible for the bulk of the sort of amiable avant garde of the late Beatles albums
  • Allen Klein was thoroughly despicable and was the most responsible for the breakup of the Beatles
  • After the break, they all said and did fairly mean things to each other yet always seemed to maintain almost familial connections
  • Linda thought a pack of Nigerian muggers would leave them alone if they knew they were musicians (Shades of the Blues Brothers?)
  • The various incarnations of Wings were populated with some volatile characters.
  • His emotions are always close to the surface and he has a temper, but he seems like a very decent fellow overall
  • There's not a theme here or much of an arc -- 1970 McCartney doesn't seem that different than 1979 McCartney
McCartney's true legacy is of course his marvelous songwriting and his virtuoso musicianship, especially as it pertains to bass guitar. The events of his life are really just mildly interesting curiosities. Should you read Man on the Run? Sure. It's clearly written, lively, and nicely taut. You will likely find no great insights, but if you have an interest in the music and personalities of the times it's a fun read, and if you are of a certain age, there is a nice sense of nostalgia to it.

The end of this book roughly corresponds with the end of McCartney's music as something of cultural significance. He was still fairly prolific in the late 20th century but was no longer a force in popular culture in any way. To this day he remains productive and still moves in the circles of high popular music; he has recently announced a new album is coming and his concerts sell out like crazy. He's really one of the most enduring and remarkable talents of my lifetime. Even with my first album purchase I had demonstrably good taste.

[TV] Toob Notes

Iron Fist Bleh. Every flaw of the Marvel TV shows is on display. Endless exposition. Meandering plots. Superfluous characters and scenes. A pointless villain shift halfway through. Poorly executed attempts at humor was delivered in such a sorry way that I could not tell if it was intended as humor or just bad writing. In this case we have to pile on an annoyingly overwrought lead actor, a bland supporting actress, and disappointing action. Yikes. The previous installments (Daredevil, Jessica Jones, Luke Cage) all felt like 8 episodes stretched to 13. Iron Fist feels like 5 stretched to 13.

Was there anything good? Of course. The Meachum family and the portrayal of them were very entertaining (Tom Pelphrey's Ward is mesmerizing) although as villains they weren't really memorable. Rosario Dawson reprised her supporting role as Claire and totally dominated the two leads in the charisma department. There was a fun "drunken master" fight scene. That's about it. Apart from that it was the rough equivalent of a third rate network TV drama -- NCIS: Kun-Lun.

You know, all these series are ripe for one of those mad genius types who take indulgent films and re-edit them into something tight and entertaining, like so? You could cut/combine all four of the Marvel TV universe shows into say, 24 episodes -- one full old school season -- and it would be Yuge. It could be they've gotten the message on this because the upcoming combo series, The Defenders, is only going to be 6 episodes.

Legion And yet I may have spoken to soon. Legion is a Marvel property of X-men orientation that goes for full on creative madness and actually achieves it. It's the brainchild of Noah Hawley of Fargo (TV series) fame and it's a visual treat. Beneath the surface it is a bit derivative in concept, but cleverly so. Sourced from the X-Men mythos, it's the standard "fear of mutants leads to their oppression" theme, although this time it's not so banally parroting a dull normal social justice narrative. It also weaves in what is essentially a demonic possession plotline reworked such that the demon is actually a bizarre form of mutant.

Mad, hallucinogenic visuals can only go so far, though. Luckily Legion doesn't depend on them. Quirky, surreal, well-portrayed characters help, but the is a key indicator of a quality TV show is the amount of exposition in the dialog. There is little here. Hawley is obviously a big "don't tell, show" guy. Lots of good writing flows from simply following this principle, including pacing and character development. And the good writing here is evident, especially in contrast to, say, Iron Fist. The final scene and post credit tag was a clear set up for next season, which in this case is unquestionably a good thing.

Aside It's interesting to see how the other Marvel streams have reacted to the astoundingly consistent high quality of the Avengers stream. X-men, through Legion and Deadpool and (I hear) Logan, have chosen to push the envelope in various ways and have generally succeeded. Spiderman, on the other hand, appears to have said "If you can't beat 'em, join 'em." Fantastic Four, well, maybe they've just given up -- that's probably for the best.

Coming Attractions While these Marvel shows are nice distractions, the good news is that some real quality drama is coming back soon. Both Better Call Saul and Fargo are imminent. Also encouraging, the stylish but ultimately disapppointing True Detective looks to be getting a dose of David Milch. No word yet on the only quality drama on TV that is not centered on crime, Halt and Catch Fire.

Comedy, too, is looking up with the return of the funniest show on TV, Archer, and Silicon Valley promos starting to appear. Plus, I will be giving side-eye to the new version of Mystery Science Theatre 3000 to see if it's a worthy of its comeback. Don't know how I'm supposed to get things done with all this on the horizon.

[Rant] A Vanishing

This article/expose in Outside about missing persons on public lands was interesting on two levels. I have spent a fair amount of vacation time hiking, trail running, and mountain biking on public lands (National parks, and so forth), almost always solo. Evidently, folks go missing in those circumstances more commonly than I would have thought. This article tells one particular story, highlighting how utterly baffling these disappearances can be. Vanishings might be a better word. It also indicates how much luck is involved in actually resolving them. In this case folks searched for nearly a year only to find the body less than 2 miles from home in a spot that they had been within spitting distance of. I occasionally joke about my ability to get lost on the simplest of trails, but maybe I shouldn't. Considering my solitary life, if I was lying dead in some unvisited ravine it could be weeks before anyone realized I was missing.

The other aspect of interest is the reaction of people to these situations. The writer makes a dramatic point that no one really knows how many people have vanished on public lands. Considered estimates run around the 1600 mark. That's 1600 people who have gone missing on public lands over the years who remain unaccounted for, but that's just an estimate because there is no agency the tracks this. Furthermore, if someone goes missing somewhere other than a major National Park like Yosemite, Grand Canyon, etc., the task of searching more often than not falls on small local sheriff departments who have to recruit volunteers for the search efforts. They do get volunteers although they are often not professionals, just folks willing to go searching for a day or so to do their part. Some individuals give even more effort and end up building non-profit organizations to assist in dealing with vanishings, often because a they have suffered a loss in similar situations.

But never underestimate the human propensity for righteous indignation. In this case, the missing fellow's father appears to have taken the opportunity to use the sympathy of others as an occasion for consequence-free impudent incivility. And why not? Who's gonna call a guy with a missing kid an asshole, even if he is? Evidently it got so bad the the local sheriff in charge of the search simply stopped speaking to him. More broadly, numerous sources and the overall tone of the article seem to imply it's an act of shameful neglect that there aren't well-funded government agencies brought to bear on this scourge. Why is no agency keeping statistics? Why isn't there an professional response team? What about the children?

To be clear, this is a good story and a well written article. You learn how easy it is to disappear even when you are capable and knowledgeable and not really in any sort of dangerous position. You see how people respond in this situation: mostly well -- volunteers participating as much as they can to help out, overworked authorities doing their damndest, etc. You sense the effect on friends and family. It's all good, personal, human, dramatic stuff. But that's not enough in our world. No, we have to have an outrage angle; everything has to take on the air of correcting some perceived grievance or injustice, because God forbid we do anything in life that is simply human and isn't sourced from a desire to correct a moral shortcoming of society.

Sorry to get cranky but there are times I am wearied by how deep this impetus is embedded into our lives now. It is the default vocabulary we use to communicate any complex message. The culture of indignation permeates everything we do and say. From a tweet to a facebook post to a press release to a corporate mission statement to the story of a missing person, it's become a thoughtlessly natural to refer to some greater societal moral failing as a cause. If there isn't one readily obvious, we snark up a comment about the current outgroup political enemy for cred. The socio-political has completely marginalized the human and the personal, and the way the socio-political connects with people emotionally is through sympathetic affront.

The cold truth is that 1600 missing people, some unknown percentage of whom are "missing" on purpose, don't amount to a hill of beans, especially in light of the millions and millions who tread upon public lands each year. The idea that this is indicative of negligence on anyone's part is way outright silly and, I suspect, often self-serving if for no other reason that the tone of indignation seems to be expected of any journalism for it to be published.

(Deep breath) Anyway. Like I said, good article and relevant to me. I think I will post on facebook anytime I'm about to go off into the wilderness alone. At least that way when someone gets around to wondering where I am, they'll have a lead. But once you find my rotted carcass please don't use me as a poster-boy for some noble cause or the source for some polemic. Just call me a dumbass and move on.

Addenda: A couple of tangentially related articles. 1. Age of Offence explores the effects of the desire for moral outrage on intellectual life. 2. The Strange Persistence of Guilt posits that the evelation of prestige via victimhood is sourced from a secular version of original sin (or somehting like that), although the author might put it differently. Both of these articles are a bit highbrow but not unclear. I continue to be troubled by the sweeping human desire for status through sanctimony.

Tuesday, March 07, 2017

The Month That Was - February 2017

It was a fairly productive month. Or at least it felt like it, but only because I made progress towards actually doing things in the future. I made strides toward getting the house painted, made progress on taxes, made arrangements for getting my second ever colonoscopy (joy). I also had a productive month at work, although that is not a topic for discussion.

I'm slowly zeroing in on travel plans, too, and being a good boy about staying fit over the winter -- the unseasonably warm weather has made that easier. So, as usual, I have no complaints.

Two more book reviews this month. I've been doing a lot of reading lately. I don't know what meaning to assign to that.

[Books] Book Look: Crazy Rich Asians
[Books] Book Look: How Much For Just the Planet?
[Movies] Flick Check: Dr. Strange
[Rant, Good Links] Irrational Follow-up

[Books] Crazy Rich Asians, by Kevin Kwan

If you were to ask what the perfect beach read is, Crazy Rich Asians might be my answer. It's a well worn story -- actually parallel stories. A woman is shocked by how rich her boyfriend is and how his rich and predatory relatives conspire to break them up. This goes hand in hand with an identical sub-plot but in this case the girl is the rich one. Along the way we are treated to excess in all things; an entertaining litany of lurid commercial voyeurism. The rich folks consistently exceed all limits of spending and one-upmanship, behaving in the way rich people do in the fevered dreams of envious poor folks. It all sounds a bit Jackie Collins-ish, and it is. Furthermore, it is amped up a bit because the moneyed folks are all Asians from Singapore, because that's where the rich still behave like "The Rich" of a glitzy bygone era in the West.

Nothing terrible happens, beyond standard issue rom-com tragedy; nice for a change not to have everything be of urgent importance to mankind. Within the scope of the trashy nature of the story, Kwan keeps the quality high. The prose is clear and smooth. Humorous relief is plentiful and well-timed. Even the Hollywood happy ending fits well. And Kwan does a good job of making it seem completely natural how the characters are trapped and threatened by their wealth -- that is to say, little seems emotionally contrived, which gives it an authentic feel.

How authentic it actually is with respect to Singaporean culture I couldn't say, but it feels realistic and Kwan is, after all, from Singapore. The influence of the West ripples throughout, from the characters names, to the fact that they attend a Methodist Church, to pop culture references, to the academies and educational institutions they value. That was of interest to me. In many ways these characters do not much care about staying in touch with their Chinese roots. It almost seems as though Singapore is an outpost of the Anglosphere.

Should you read Crazy Rich Asians. Unless you are dead set against reading for entertainment as opposed to enlightenment, I can't see why not. Get a copy for you next vacation. You may want to read it before it becomes a major motion picture, though. You can be ahead of the curve.

[Books] Book Look: How Much For Just the Planet?, by John M. Ford

Well, that was interesting. This is a Star Trek book, which I know from adolescence to be pretty much pure pulp and would normally never hit my radar, but I had it from informed sources that it was something special. And special it certainly is.

Occasionally, in the course of a long running TV series, the writers are given the opportunity to have some fun with an episode. Often this takes the form of a musical or a comedic farce in the middle of a season full of drama. Examples would be the Buffy musical, or any X-files episode written by Darin Morgan, or in a Star Trek vein: The Trouble With Tribbles (which was also the source of a similar episode on Deep Space Nine). How Much For Just the Planet is the equivalent of such an episode in the form of a book.

To wit: The inhabitants of dilithium-rich planet tend to break into Gilbert and Sullivan musical numbers. Kirk and a Klingon counterpart get involved in a slapstick set piece. Scotty gets in a duel of honor with a Klingon officer in a game of golf, played in the middle of a battle. Uhura and a Klingon fan of Earth noir movies practically re-enact The Maltese Falcon. And naturally, it all ends in a pie fight. It's utterly silly, but rollicking good fun.

The book itself could use some structural refinements. It's very easy to lose track of threads and who's who and in what manic situation, and as the madness runs on it also runs a bit thin (this is often the problem with three act farces). Still, considering the sad state of the Star Trek efforts at the moment, what with the Abrams movies getting increasingly ham-fisted and the upcoming series engulfed in production chaos, it might be an energizing idea to do a special event based on this book. Joss Whedon could make it a masterpiece (if he can stop freaking out about Trump). Outside the box would be Seth MacFarlane. Yet further outside would be Trey Parker and Matt Stone. All of them understand musical comedy. It might add a little life to an increasingly stultified franchise.

So should you read How Much For Just The Planet? Probably not. It's a good book, almost poetic in places, but it is clearly meant as a novelization of a musical farce yet to be made. Still, high points for doing a Star Trek book that isn't space opera pulp, and for having some fun with it.

[Movies] Flick Check: Dr. Strange

Probably among the weaker efforts in the Marvel MCU, it's still a cut above any most non-MCU superhero movies (note: have not seen Logan yet.). Dr. Strange gets points for trying to stay true to the original comic book by angling for a hippie/spiritual/psychedelic head trip vibe and it succeeds to some extent. One critique is in tone. It was clearly a struggle to find the right balance between the sincere, reverent tone that characterizes most spiritual journey-type plots with the wisecracking irony so essential to the charm of the MCU. Dr. Strange is played by Frumious Bandersnatch Benedict Cumberbatch employing an American accent which, given his ubiquity in his normal voice, is quite dissonant. Perhaps this is part of the reason that snappy dialogue isn't all that effective here: there is not much of it and what there is is given solely to Cumberbatch, everyone else gets standard sci-fi/action movie words and roles. It's a moment of happy relief when the post credits tag brings Thor into the mix, if only for a few seconds.

Overall I'd guess it was a struggle to make Dr. Strange as formulated carry a film on his own. He needs a foil like Sherlock needs his John. Unfortunately, Martin Freeman already has another role in the MCU. To live on, Strange needs a partner to bring out the best in Cumberbatch, and a villain and supporting cast who are more than dire drones.

This review turned more negative than I had hoped. I don't want to scare you off of Dr. Strange. It's a solid entry in the MCU and a good couple of hours of entertainment but don't look for anything too special. It's mostly just a plot advancer for Infinity War.

[Rant, Good Links] Irrational Follow-up

The last couple of months I discussed my sense of depression over the realization of how emotional, willfully closed-minded, and immune to reason the human race is. Allow me to present some relevant links on the sad topic.
  • Last month I mentioned a possible evolutionary source of this irrational behavior was something called Coalitional Instinct. At the time all I could find on it was a speculative post on The Edge, but now the New Yorker has taken it up so I suppose that means it's officially mainstream.
  • My longtime fave Robin Hanson has a bit less meta take on the issue, pointing out the contrast of facts and values in influencing behavior and decision-making, staying away from the strict irrationality angle.
  • And then along comes Cracked to go in the opposite direction and come right out and call the fashionably outraged a bunch of Dopamine Puppets. Bless.
Of course, all this is pointless unless you realize it applies to you, not just the Other Side.

Thursday, February 09, 2017

The Month That Was - January 2017

I'm even later than usual. It feels odd to be posting about the new year when we're nearly halfway through February. I blame the persistent inconvenient state of the world. A lot of month end stuff I have to prioritize over this.

The days are finally getting longer and as we tough out another winter. I have to admit it's nice to have a break from yard work. So far this year is turning out to be nothing particularly special, and that's OK. I am still procrastinating on house work. Still spending too much time at the gym and too little time at the keyboard. I except all that to continue -- until it doesn't, at which point I will look back on this as good times. The salad days.

[Books] Book Look: Let Me Be Frank With You
[Rant] Looking Ahead
[Rant] More Depression
[Music, Tech] Solving Music

[Books] Book Look: Let Me Be Frank With You, by Richard Ford

I am a big fan of the Richard Ford's Frank Bascombe series. Over the course of four novels he has traced the life of a man in full. A true everyman: an Upper Middle Class white liberal, yes, but a man who has been through confusion, grief, divorce, career change, remarriage, filial emotional churn, disasters, triumphs, and finally old age.

A quick summary of the journey that spanned four books.

The Sportswriter, Frank Bascombe is a failed writer of fiction who has taken a job as a sportswriter. We discover he is divorced; an event that is hopelessly entangled with death of his young son. He has a girlfriend who really doesn't fit with him -- that also ends. We finish with Frank not remotely sorted, but at least feeling somewhat optimistic about the future.

Independence Day follows and Frank is trying to get his head around his new life as a realtor. He meanders through minor events with friends and clients and his ex, eventually escorting his somewhat troubled son on a guy's weekend for a some evidently needed bonding. An accident happens (not too serious) that causes him to find a certain understanding of the need to commit himself rather than live in self-sufficient detachment.

The Lay of the Land Frank is now well into middle age, fairly wealthy, and living on the Jersey shore. (Previous he lived inland in "Haddam", a fictional city that some think is meant to approximate Princeton.) This one went a little further out there. Frank's second wife has left him for her previous husband (who was declared dead?). He seems to feel more settled and permanent, but he still struggles with his wayward son and daughter. He also struggles with his prostate. He comes to some realizations about his life of the sort that you only come to when you're past fifty, not the least of which being that he is still mourning the son he lost decades ago. It ends bombastically and at the time was thought to be the last of the trilogy.

Then unexpectedly we get Let me be Frank with You. Now Frank is legitimately old. His kids are dispersed. His marriage is settled. His professional ambition has passed. He is living back in Haddam, where he has spent the bulk of his life. We follow Frank over the course of a weekend in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy. The encounters here seem to focus mostly on death, or at least mortality: A chance encounter with the former owner of his home where a horrifying tragedy took place; a meeting with his ex-wife who has been diagnosed with Parkinson's; and a fateful encounter with an old friend who springs a secret on him. Frank doesn't really want any of these encounters. He needs no more reminders of mortality, nor is he all that interested in rehashing the past, but he is given little choice. It is the nature of old age.

As with all the books, there isn't any sort of obvious arc to the narrative. It's an acutely observed sequence of mostly commonplace actions filtered through Frank's mind. The story moves seamlessly between direct observations and Frank's conscious judgments and evaluations as directed by his subconscious connections. The result is a story of the commonplace that holds your attention not as a grand illumination but through relatability. Frank is good-hearted, petty, sincere, cynical, detached, involved, intimate, remote, genuine, contrived -- he is a jumble of ambiguity and contradiction, just like all of us. You won't find too much out of the ordinary here, but you will likely see a bit of yourself, if not a good deal of yourself. The light is shined on you writ small and that can be very affecting.

Should you read Let Me Be Frank WIth You? If you have read the others, then yes, absolutely. Otherwise, if it sounds interesting you should start at the beginning rather than here at the end. Be advised, while these are very accessible books, if you are not of a mind to appreciate quiet and subtlety you'll almost certainly get bored by the lack of action. As for me, I found them wonderful exemplars and even in the face of my long time appreciation of John Updike, I would take this quadrilogy over the Rabbit any day.

[Rant] Looking Ahead

Each year I try to set some goals in three areas -- House, Fitness, Travel. There are goals in other areas too, but not for publication. So away we go...

House: Could this finally be the year I get the Master Bath redone? If so I need to get started now. It's not as if there won't be long waits to fit in builders schedules. Apart from that, there is leftover landscaping from 2016. I have the plans for that, so I may not go to the same place to get it done, if I can get a lowball bid. Apart from that there are minor repairs and painting. Perhaps even a full exterior painting. I predict I get one major thing done.

Fitness: A century ride (100 miles). In fact, more time on the bike in general. I may try to do another triathlon, but I'd be happy just doing the same open water swim I did last year. And as always, I should have at least one half marathon on the schedule to make sure I don't backslide. I don't think I'll do all three Mack races this year. The 8-Mile, yes, but the other only if I have friends who want to join me. Three times a year to the island is a lot of expense. I won't miss my staple races, Big House, Road Ends, Holiday Hustle. I'm usually a lot more specific in this area, but I'm inclined to think I'd like to dovetail a lot of fitness events with travel...

Travel: A Spring and a Winter trip to FL, I'd like to catch another Tigers spring training game, among other things. I'd like to get SCUBA certified, that might involve a nice trip to St. Somewhere. There is a total solar eclipse occurring right over Charleston SC, which might be a good reason to go for a visit. I have friends in North Carolina now so a jaunt to Asheville might be of interest. Sedona, AZ has re-emerged on my radar as I have been reading about the mountain bike trails. Each year I wonder if it's the right year for an epic trip, and each year I find reasons to take shorter trips, closer to home. The truth is, that grand adventure style trip doesn't interest me that much. I have never been to Europe; never even been out of North America. I don't know why, despite my urge to be in motion, I've never felt compelled enough to vanish to the far side of the world. It is a topic I should explore, and every year might be the year, but I am no longer optimistic that any sort of "grand tour' will happen -- and I'm OK with that.

[Rant] More Depression

Last month I discussed how the election got me down (not the way it did for most people) and bemoaned the dominance of irrationality and emotion in human decision making. Outlandish delusions become self-evident facts in the minds of people who, in other circumstances, are steady, intelligent folks. The more I thought about it the stranger a quality it seemed. From an evolutionary standpoint, what possible advantage could a human tendency for this confer. I would certainly think being able to see the world objectively would be a fitness advantage for Joe Caveman not the reverse. The broader question is How on Earth did we evolve to delude ourselves so easily and thoroughly?

The answer may be something called Coalitional Instinct, described at The Edge. As I read it, humans developed the instinct for building coalitions as a way to enhance our security and power -- united groups can better survive and overcome individual threats. Coalitions are cemented by shared qualities, including opinions, and the more fervently you hold those opinions, even to the point of delusion, the stronger your bond to your coalition and theoretically the better off you should be to live long and prosper. In return, your brain gives you a hit of dopamine for positive reinforcement. In other words, losing your mind over the presidential election is just you acting out an irresistible primal instinct for strengthen your place in your coalition. Your brain believes that idiotic meme you posted on facebook enhances your chances of surviving to procreate.

All this is, of course, suppositional. I don't know of any hard neuroscience behind it. But it would explain a lot of it's true in some fashion. It would be the reason that even though we now have almost all the information the human race has ever gathered is at our fingertips, we've only become more irrational and delusional -- because the facts will weaken our fervency and therefore our bonds with our coalition, we must weasel our way around them by being even crazier. It would explain why cognitive dissonance is so devastating and sends people into ever deeper spirals of desperate rationalizations -- because contrary evidence is a direct threat to the foundations of our coalition. It would explain why it's not just contradicting views but insufficient enthusiasm is see as a weakness and threat -- because coalitions are strongest with total commitment.

None of this is a particularly encouraging picture of humanity so I am no less depressed for having a possible explanation.

[Music, Tech] Solving Music

I have never been able to develop a sufficiently robust music strategy. I have managed to rid myself of hard media (CDs and such), but I still have mp3s from years ago and the streaming ecosphere is a confusing mess.

Nexus 5x is my main phone. It works well, or as well as any android phone (I still miss Windows Phone) and with the Google FI wireless service it's remarkably inexpensive. If I use little data (less than 1GB), my monthly bill comes in under $30, often grazing the mid $20s. A heavy data month will amount to about $33-$35. I get the strongest signal available of Sprint, T Mobile, or wi-fi for calls and texts. It's not without dead spots, but they are rare. Google FI is highly recommended.

However, I do not keep any music stored on it. It has no expandable storage so a great deal of it is used up with photos and apps. Generally, when I listen to music on mobile I have it on for an extended period -- long road trips in rental cars without Sirius/XM, or for running, or for times I am wandering around Vegas and I keep the music going as I walk the Strip.

So my music solution(s) is a haphazard mess at the moment. I keep my entire mp3 collection on my cheap little Samsung Tab E. The Tab is nice little device, which I use as a music player and alarm clock and as a very lite computer when I really don't think I need my laptop. It does the job, but it is underpowered for today's world and laggy in general -- unacceptably laggy when things get complicated. Also, it's too big for carrying around if you're on your feet.

So for running I have a bought a $30 4GB Sandisk player that's about the size of a matchbook. I have an armband for it, but it's got a little clip too. It is quite capable of holding my entire running playlist -- about 3 hours of music -- and a couple of podcasts. It is dead simple to operate and it requires so little in resources that it runs for hours and the battery is still nearly full. It is a very good running solution. Smart purchase for me.

That leaves the wandering around music sitch -- the rarest one and I am currently using my old Windows Phone as a dedicated music player for that.

The whole mess works, but it is inconvenient. I continue to search for a more holistic solution for which I keep trying to get my head wrapped around the Google Play music service. If I read it correctly, it will store all my mp3s in a locker in the cloud for streaming at anytime. If that was the case, I could get a main phone with the longest battery life possible and I could, theoretically use it for all my music listening while having nothing stored on the phone itself. A very tempting notion. The cost to me would be about $200 a year, I estimate, when you figure in the $10/month for a Google Play music subscription and another $8-ish dollars for the data overages. I'd still need to keep my Sandisk for the occasional run in places where I would have no service.

It seems to me there would be a market for a cheap dedicated music streaming device via subscription that included a data only cell connection and wi-fi. Say, $15.99 per month including device, cloud storage for owned music, streaming from a large library, bluetooth, cell data service, and wi-fi. Make it sweatproof and you've got something just about perfect for 90% of the time. Hmmm. I hereby patent this idea (can I do that?).

No don't get me started on video streaming. Maybe next time.

Addenda: And what's up with music subscription services, am I right? I need to pick one.
  • Pandora is an inexpensive option, but the library is very limited.
  • Spotify is the top dog but I had a bad time of it during the free trial. It kept stopping in the middle of playlists for no good reason other than to annoy me. Research suggested this happens on Android from time to time, but it was happening to me all the time. I cancelled before the trial ended.
  • Apple Music (formerly iTunes) only works well with the Apple ecosphere, or so the reviews would have me believe.
  • Groove Music (formerly XBox music, formerly Zune) is a possibility since I still have warm fuzzies for my old Zune player and I generally find Microsoft products have sweet interfaces, but it is new compared to other services and so playlists might be slim. It will store my mp3s in the cloud for me.
  • Amazon is now offering a pay service over and above it's standard Prime service. Standard prime is a blessing because it's free with your prime sub and it's about on par with Pandora for songs. The premium service promises to step it up on par with the big players. It has the advantage of allowing an annual purchase at a discount. This is currently my second choice.
  • There are other services -- Slacker, I Heart Radio, Sirius/XM has a service beyond their satellite broadcast. You could make a career of following these.
  • As I mentioned above, my current odds on favorite is Google Play Music. It will store my music on the cloud and it also includes a sub to YouTube Red, which would kill all the YouTube ads. There is also quite good music on YouTube.
Think I'll start up that free trial and see how it goes.

The world continues to get more complicated.

Sunday, January 08, 2017

The Month That Was - December 2016

And that's that. 2016, consensus choice for the most FUBAR year in living memory, evaporates into the history books.

I decided to recap my year below. It was a good year for me all in all, although it felt subpar as it was happening.

I am dug in for the winter, by which I mean the next couple of months. I will likely get a spring visit down to Florida, but until then it is cold and colder.

I am about halfway through the first draft of my next book. So all I have left is the first draft of the second half, followed by about 900 total revisions. Target release date Summer 2057.

Ah well, it's 2017, the world of the future. Even if my brain is wired not the feel it, I know my life is very good.  Probably better than that of 99.9999% of everyone who has ever lived.  If I am incapable of feeling fulfilled and lucky at least I can reason that I am.

[Rant] Annual Review
[Books] Book Look: The Last Samurai
[Rant] Dysfunction Far and Wide
[Books] Book Look: Black Hole Blues

[Rant] Annual Review

Looking back, here is my post from the start of the year about plans. So let's see how I did.

The House -- I said: "I want to re-landscape a section of the front yard. That should be readily do-able. I think the next renovation will be the master suite." The front yard got done as planned, a bit more expensive than anticipated. No progress on the Master Suite so that goal rolls over to 2017.

Travel -- I said: "I can count on a spring trip to FL and out west at Thanksgiving again, but beyond that who knows? I've had Alaska on my radar since forever. We'll see. But there is a plan floating around that might get me back to Hawaii, which I guess I could live with." Well, I did get to Florida again. I overachieved at going out west, first with a trip to Moab just after Labor Day and then extending my November Vegas trip to include a run up the Pacific Coast Highway to the Monterey peninsula. Also, I got in a very nice trip to Maine - Acadia National Park and all -- just before Memorial Day. So travel was a big success.

Fitness -- I said: "I want to do another triathlon. I'd like to do an Olympic distance (roughly twice as long as the Sprint distance I did last year). I'll probably do some of my tried and true foot races, being sure to get in a half-marathon somewhere along the way." I did not do another triathlon, never mind an Olympic, but I did do my longest open water swim (1.2 miles) and my longest bike ride (66 miles), and managed two half marathons so I'm going to call it a success, too.

Interestingly, while the year was progressing I always felt like I was slacking off. Only in retrospect do I see that I did OK. Next month, we'll look forward.

[Books] Book Look: The Last Samurai, by Helen DeWitt

This is a fascinating book. It is the story of a hyper-intellectual single mother raising a genius child, but I feel safe in saying that whatever narrative you have pre-conceived based on that description is wrong.

The mother, Sibylla, is a mess. She is in a constant battle against the world and its assorted hypocrisies, using logical argument as a bludgeon against any form of normalcy (she is given a brief biography nearly on to set up her personality). The story starts from her point of view and we have a certain sympathy. She has the same struggles all parents do, trying to provide the best for her son while his demands and neediness and out-right existence seem to conspire against her. She is relatively impoverished, wasting her intellect in drudgery to pay the bills all the while schooling her young genius, who has an incredible facility for languages among other prodigious skills. She sees a bit of potential relief when it comes time for the boy to finally go off to school -- imagine all she could accomplish with the five uninterrupted hours! But after a brief stint, it becomes clear that school will simply crush a beautiful outlier like her son, so she resorts to home schooling and trying not to go crazy.

As the boy ages our point of view changes. We start by getting regular and constant interruptions in the narrative as the boy, Ludo, pesters her questions. In time she suggests Ludo start a journal, from which we get occasional entries. From the journal we see she picks fights with strangers on the train who happen to passingly express more conventional views, or even just make small talk. More importantly, she is more brutally honest with the child than the child deserves (toying with him over the identity of his father), and she commits the grievous parental sin of making the child be the adult.

By midway through the book Ludo has reached his tween years and has taken over fully as narrator. He discovers who his father is -- a writer, held in artistic contempt by his mother -- and conspires to meet him. He turns out to be a very decent, rather normal man, but Ludo never reveals to him that he is his son. Either by his own mind or the influence of his mother or some combination thereof, Ludo feels he needs a father who does not feel the constraints of convention. So, influenced by his familiarity with the Kurosawa classic, The Seven Samurai (again, due to his mother's obsession), he hatches a plan to visit a series of outliers, both famous and infamous, and claim to be their child.

This sets up DeWitt to produce a wonderful series of character sketches. The potential "fathers" readily engage in biographic exposition for the precocious boy with the biting wit. This makes for some fun reading. When all's said and done though, the bigger-than-lifes either see through his ruse or are not worthy. But the point is made. Ludo is not going to be normal and no matter how much everyone thinks that he's being deprived of some vital experience for the lack of normalcy, he ends up with a vast amount of experience and ability that he would never have received had he been forced into a standard life-track. De-emphasized, but perhaps even more important is that he stumbles on a way to relieve his mother of the financial burden she struggles with.

DeWitt takes a lot of chances. She employs an unusual way of transcribing dialog, omitting quotes and simply prefacing standard text with "He saids" and "I said." It requires somewhat closer reading as she seems to have no strict method for when the "saids" appear, occasionally not even being in the same paragraph. It seems to work, at least for me, as it gave me a stronger sense of the dialog as emerging from memory, not intended as a transcription of real-time action. She also doesn't hesitate to spend some time indulging in descriptions of Ludo's lessons, which often take the form of extended lessons in the translation of ancient Greek or other languages, much only partially comprehensible to the average reader (such as me).

A clear theme to the book is the examination of the fate of those who are different, those who are dedicated to artistic or human endeavor that is beyond the paths most people take, and the reaction such people can expect from others. This is a treacherous trope -- the misunderstood genius -- but DeWitt brings to bear a great deal of sympathy to such people, and an appreciation of the courage it takes. A lesser talent would either turn the story into symbolic appeal for tolerance of the poor misunderstood geniuses, or a sentimental tale where normalcy is found to be not so bad after all. DeWitt sees the balance of the cost and rewards of such a life.

Should you read The Last Samurai? That's a tough one. I loved it. I found it beyond just affecting; it was truly stimulating, as you can tell from the length of this review. It is not, however, for the casual reader. Or at least the casual reader will not get out of it what a thoughtful, intellectually inquisitive reader would. But if you are one of the eternally shrinking pool of people who are dedicated to the written word, it's a gem at a minimum, perhaps one for the pantheon.

[Rant] Dysfunction Far and Wide

I mentioned last month that my Liberal friends (and that's most of them since I live near Ann Arbor) we're losing their minds over the election. It has only slightly abated; they are still convinced that Donald Trump is destined to destroy the world. It prompted me to give some thought to how many dysfunctional presidents there have been in my lifetime (that would be from Eisenhower forward). It turns out quite a few:
  • Eisenhower - Functional.
  • Kennedy - Dysfunctional. Behaved towards women in a way that would be called misogynist today. Also took so many drugs for various maladies he was regularly judgment-impaired (even during the Cuban Missile Crisis).
  • Johnson - Dysfunctional in the extreme. Sociopathic, and a sex pervert. Referred to his penis as Jumbo and would whip it out at inappropriate times while defying people to say they had ever seen a bigger one. On one occasion, urinated on the pant leg of one of his Secret Service bodyguards in a display of dominance.
  • Nixon - Dysfunctional. Paranoid, power mad, and deeply corrupt. Towards the end he was given to such troubling behavior that there was an informal agreement among his staff that if he ever ordered a nuclear strike they would get approval from Kissinger first.
  • Ford - Functional.
  • Carter - Functional.
  • Reagan - Functional, with the exception of the end when he began to exhibit signs of Alzheimers.
  • Bush 1 - Functional.
  • Clinton - Dysfunctional. Combined Nixon's affinity for corruption with JFKs attitude toward women.
  • Bush 2 - Functional.
  • Obama - Functional.
  • Trump - Well...
A couple of observation leap out. First, neither party has a monopoly on lunacy. Second, bad results don't automatically follow from mentally unbalanced presidents. From that list it seems there is no telling whether we are in for good times or bad times based on the mental stability of the president. That would point to the conclusion that the office of the President isn't as important as it is portrayed. My personal belief is that the country isn't run by the President or Congress or the Supreme Court, but by the Washington Bureaucracy. People are yelling at it from the right and from the left, but The Bureaucracy travels its own undiscoverable path, like the gods of Greek mythollogy arbitrarily bestowing reward and punishment on mortals. (Yes, my internal narratives are more fanciful than most.)

Also, it's worth pointing that we are still not certain about Trump. He behaves and speaks abysmally, but his actual actions since the election have been pretty normal. I know that people of my generation seem to value the office of president as culturally symbolic beyond just functional policy making and so have certain behavioral expectations, but maybe things have changed. Maybe people are so comfortable with a disconnect between words and deeds now that the president is free to act like a reality show star without consequence to policy. It's not 1965 anymore. It's not even 1995.

This is not to say the election didn't bother me. It did, but not for the same reason as most people. What disturbed me most was how thoroughly every aspect of it was dominated by emotion and irrationality. Now, I understand that human decisions are made irrationally, from a hot mess of pattern matching against memories and neurons firing in probabilistic variations around an innate behavioral tendency, and rationalized afterwards. But as the election season went along, everybody, including people I know and respect, built these astonishing narratives in their heads of the horrors that would certainly be visited upon us should the other side win. The basis of these narratives had virtually no relationship to objective reality, often running exactly counter to factual evidence. In all elections the parties work hard to demonize each other but in my memory the majority of people understand that this is just a marketing ploy, essentially a use of advertising tricks to sway opinion. Not this time around. This time it seemed not only that everyone was taking these portrayals as established truth, but actually building more outrageous stories from them. And the more outrageous the narratives got, the deeper people believed in them.

That's what's scary to me. Evil people coming to power doesn't scare me so much. The world is huge and complicated and, short of North Korea, the bad guys always have opposition. No, the really terrifying thing is righteousness. All the greatest horror in history stems not from people planning to do evil, but from people with absolute certainty in their righteousness. That's what I saw that disturbed me so much. People were so thoroughly convinced of their righteousness that I could picture them doing terrible things in support of it. And to pile on, they believed their pure righteousness was the only thing standing the way of the other side's pure righteousness. Lather, rinse, repeat until the end of civilization.

I always thought that humanity was characterized constant push pull of the rational and irrational, analysis and emotion, objectivity and sentiment. But now I see it is hardly an equal match. My view has changed and I see humanity as a chaotic stew of battling primal instincts, with only occasional flashes of reason bringing any growth or progress or hope. It's a sad belief to be forced to adopt, but at my age there is no excuse for naivete.

[Books] Book Look: Black Hole Blues, by Jenna Levin

I originally thought this book would in the pop science genre -- a layman-level description of the theory and concepts behind gravitational waves. It's not that, but a wonderfully sensitive and beautifully written piece of scientific history.

Gravitational waves are by products of the violent actions of objects of extraordinary mass; two black holes colliding and such. They are predicted by General Relativity and provide the only information we have about the universe that does not come through radiation. Levin analogizes this to sound; so far all we have had to understand the universe is sight -- radiation -- now we have sound -- gravitational waves -- which opens an entirely new possibilities for understanding.

That's about the extent of the science. The story here -- and it is a story, as compelling as a good novel -- is the five-plus decade search for these things, and more importantly, the lives devoted to that search. What follows are in-depth portraits of the scientists (many now quite renown) -- their quirks and dysfunctions, their conflicts and camaraderie, their victories and disappointments. Scientists are, perhaps, an odder group of people than most, their relationships often accurately characterized as an interaction of pathologies. Levin brings both the pain and exhilaration of their obsessions alive as this singular pursuit grows from makeshift garage-level do-it-yourself projects to a multi-million dollar, taxpayer-financed, congressionally overseen initiative.

The story is best summed up in Levin's closing passage. Sorry for the length, but if you like this quote, you'll like the book:
Initiated by a collision of black holes or neutron stars or an exploding stars, maybe more than a billion years ago, the waves in the shape of space have been on their way here ever since.

A vestige of the noise of the crash has been on the way to us since early multicelled organisms fossilized in supercontinents on a still dynamic Earth. When the sound moved through our Local Supercluster of galaxies, dinosaurs roamed the planet. As it passed the nearby Andromeda galaxy, the Ice Age began. As it entered the halo of our Milky Way, we were painting caves. As the wave approached a nearby star cluster, we were in the final furlong, the rapid years of industrialization. The steam engine was invented and Albert Einstein theorized on the existence of gravitational waves. When I started to write this book, the sound reached Alpha Centauri.

In the final miniscule fraction of that billion year journey, a team of hundreds of scientists will have built an observatory to record the first notes from space. As the sound moves through the interstellar space outside the solar system, the detectors will be operational.

As the wave nears the orbit of Neptune, we only have a few more hours. Past the Sun, we have eight more minutes. Someone will be on duty in the control room...after the passage of eight unexceptional minutes, she might barely hear something that sounds different...A sophisticated computer algorithm will parse the data stream in real time and send notification to the data analysts...and one will be the first to look over the specs...and think calmly, "This might be it."

As much as this book is a chronicle of gravitational waves...it is a tribute to a quixotic, epic, harrowing experimental endeavor, a tribute to a fool's ambition.
That's a better description than I could write; and prescient. It was written before the first successful observation of gravitational waves and is pretty close to what actually happened (which is covered in an epilogue). I found myself quite happy for all people who had devoted their lives to this "fool's ambition" to see their life's work finally succeed and find a major sense of closure to their lives. I can only hope have the same feeling someday.

Should you read Black Hole Blues? Even if you have the slightest interest in science you should. It is a truly great story.