Friday, December 08, 2017

The Month That Was - November 2017

November is a sigh of resignation. It appears I will survive yet another year. It appears I will have to endure another winter. I did have a fine break down to Vegas for Thanksgiving as usual. Also, my houseguest had her nieces (ages 6 and 11) over for a weekend and they are a good approximation of a hurricane. So the month was not without its action.

I seem to have lost a good deal of enthusiasm for the things that previously took my time. Working out has become a bit of a chore, travel doesn't really excite me, and I haven't written anything in awhile. Not sure if this is temporary or indicative of something else. I am also gaining weight. I am push 185 which is at 5-10 pounds too high. Something must be done about that.

Whatever the case, I continue to push on.

[Detroit, Rant] Detroit vs. Me
[Movies] Flick Check: Justice League
[Travel, Vegas] State of Vegas

[Detroit, Rant] Detroit vs. Me

Time was I used to regularly point and laugh at all the heartfelt stories of Detroit's rebirth and recovery, claiming that it was futile and Detroit was hopeless. Now that tangible evidence of that recovery is getting publicity everywhere you look, you'd think I'd be hiding my head in shame. Well, no. I'm still going to be the wet blanket on your happy feelies.

Two good things have happened. First, the State of Michigan took over management of Detroit when they went into bankruptcy. Until then, assorted powers on the city council along the mayor worked the city like the mafia bust out. The State taking over has at least allowed businesses to feel like they are not going to get shaken down and milked dry. That has led to the second good thing, which is some high profile businesses have opened up shop in the city. The cynic in me says these businesses are figuring out ways to use decaying Detroit as a benefit to branding, either to goose their Good Progressive Actor scores or elevate their authenticity status. (Authenticity is a holy grail for well-heeled, insecure hipsters and nothing makes you more real than being from Detroit. )

Along with these high profile businesses have come well-meaning white people who fancy themselves on the vanguard of culture and coolness. Getting a New York Times article about how cool you are gives them shivers of validation. I'd wager you get more cred these days for being from Detroit than you do being from Brooklyn; that's saying something.

This year, was the first election for mayor since the State has relinquished control back to local authorities. As of last August, four of the eight candidates for mayor were felons -- two of whom were charged with attempted murder. Now, the good news is that none of them were serious candidates, but old habits of die hard (just ask Marion Barry). Yet, remarkably, the new Mayor, Mike Duggan, is white -- which strongly suggests that one way or another the old power structure is on the ropes. I mean, he beat Coleman Young II, son of the long-time mayor Coleman Young who was the individual who did the most the destroy the city. His dad would never have lost to a white man, so something is going on.

So that's good. I'm happy for this. I really am. And I grudgingly have to say progress has been made. But what you have to understand is that all this positivity is confined to about one square mile around Hart Plaza. It's like a small window connecting the city to the functional world outside. The broader problems are far from over. Corruption is still deeply ingrained in the city's flesh. Check out this story on the cop implicated in a towing-auto theft scam. And there is still rampant incompetence, from the comic -- bands of undercover cops fighting each other -- to the tragic -- you may have read about to 600 neglected rape kits. Imagine being a rape victim and calling about the progress of your case only to dig your way through a litany of laconic functionaries to eventually discover they couldn't be bothered to to keep track of your rape kit. Detroit is still not a good place to live by any measure. It remains The Most Violent City in America.

But here we have, for the first time in my lifetime, a step in the right direction. The question is can the next step be taken. That's a harder step. The high profile businesses coming in can only go so far. To be of any real economic benefit they will need to house employees in the city -- and not just right-thinking white hipsters. We're talking middle-class families. We're talking good schools and secure streets. And for those you need two things: 1) public safety, which it is well documented that you don't have, and 2) a strong school system, which not only do you not have, but you have the educational bureaucracy actively working against you.

Beyond that, you need an ecosystem of small, unglamorous businesses - plumbers, convenience stores, child care centers, dull office-fillers, etc. -- because one of the benefits of having big name companies in your town is the further business growth needed to service both the companies and the employees that they can bring in. That's how functional cities grow. But in Detroit, the entrenched, hyperactive regulatory policies and enforcement institutions seem dedicated to stifling any business that isn't well funded enough to locate in Detroit on principle alone. Read this for a good description of the conditions. In short, businesses seeking profit as opposed to goodwill, will look elsewhere.

We're still a long way from a Detroit that is functional in any way beyond symbolism. Detroit has a problem with Rule of Law. It has too little is some circumstances and too much in others. There is a word: Anarcho-tyranny, which is a government that cannot control real criminals so it controls the innocent to demonstrate its authority. Detroit has flirted with that for the last 50 years and that hasn't changed.

But however tiny, there is an upswing, something I never expected. What comes next, in the absence of strong State oversight, will be interesting to see. I honestly hope the day comes when I have to eat crow. But I doubt it. My sneer remains intact.

[Movies] Flick Check: Justice League

Question: Can Joss Whedon save DC? Answer: Not really. After the dreadful Batman vs, Superman and Wonder Woman, Justice League isn't that bad. It succeeds because Whedon knows how to do good action sequences, he also knows how to do comedy (although his casting director doesn't), and he knew enough to basically make a cut rate Marvel film (reluctant heroes joining forces to beat a bad guy with cubes of power -- yeah, that's original) rather than hold to DC traditions. Also, Flash and Aquaman weren't totally lame. But really all you end up with is a film that would still be one of the worst Marvel movies ever made. Each successive DC release is another beat down. The best they could come up with is this luke-warm derivation and it had to go up against Ragnarok and the Infinity War trailer. Honestly, I'm at the point where I am embarrassed for them.

[Travel, Vegas] State of Vegas

I now have 16 or 17 years of regular visits to Las Vegas. Much has changed. If you ask most longtime Vegas visitors, these changes have been for the worse. I don't know. I try to be careful not to be an old man yelling at clouds when it comes to change. I'll just say it is definitely different. About 15 years ago, sports-writer Bill Simmons made the keen observation that there were three places in the U.S. where you felt like you were in a movie just by being there. One was Manhattan. Another was the French Quarter in New Orleans. And the third was the Vegas Strip. I agree with Simmons; back then it was true that those places made you feel special.

It's probably still true of Manhattan. Although I haven't been in several years -- mostly due to it costing an arm and a leg to get a hotel room or even a cab from the airport -- it's hard to imagine it changing so thoroughly as to be any less exciting. The French Quarter is probably even better than it used to be since it is cleaner and perhaps a bit less scary since Katrina, without a corresponding drop in party madness.

Vegas, on the other hand, just doesn't give me that feeling any more. I will acknowledge up front that it could simply be familiarity that's causing that. But I remember on my first trip, around the turn of the century, I was standing in the sports book at Bellagio and a pretty waitress brought me a complimentary beer, just because I was standing in the sports book. I hadn't even placed a bet yet, I was just watching a game. There was nary a Resort Fee to be found. Anywhere I went I could park free, or valet if I was willing to tip -- which I always was. I'm no high roller, but little things like that made me feel special. It made me feel like the town was happy I was there and they just wanted me to have some good, maybe not-so-clean fun while not having to sweat the small stuff. It made me feel like the leading man in a movie.

You can still get free drinks in the sports book, but they do it by giving you drink tickets only if you wager enough money and even then, only if you are bold enough to ask. Resort fees, our old enemy, are everywhere and can almost double the cost of a mid-week room at times. Parking fees, our new enemy, are the most recent degradation -- almost all the major properties charge for parking now. Of course, you can get some nice perks by signing up for M-life or Total Rewards and such, because we all go to Vegas for that sweet Costco-type experience. Nobody ever handed Danny Ocean an M-life application.

And if I hadn't sworn off table games years ago, I probably would today over the state of blackjack.

None of this is monumental. I still have fun every trip and I still look forward to my visits, but that old feeling is gone. I used to feel like Vegas was there to have a great time and I needn't worry about the nickel-and-dime details -- park wherever you want, score a free drink now and then; it's cool, you're the leading man. Now I feel like Vegas is trying to see how much it can squeeze out of me to get that same great time. I have to be on guard or they will take me to the cleaners faster than a used car salesman.

I still visit Vegas regularly and will likely continue to do so until the day I die. It's a world class destination, not to be missed. But I certainly don't feel like I'm in a movie anymore. Maybe I should try Macau.

Anyway. Highlights:

Prestige level at Palazzo is pretty sweet. Free breakfast and free booze for happy hour in the exclusive lounge. Huge, opulent room. Worth the money, I think.

Dinner at Carson Kitchen. The menu, mostly small plates, is very creative. Which is to say it's hit or miss. Some of it is "meh" -- the veal meatballs, the watermelon & feta salad. The good stuff -- Devil's Eggs, Flatbreads -- is very, very good. And the signature dessert -- Glazed Donut Bread Pudding -- is without peer.

Fremont Street is the most fun area in Vegas. I'm still not sold on it for a multi-day stay because I prefer a at least a bit of luxury in my life and Golden Nugget doesn't count. But for an evening or two of revelry, it's the best.

The High Roller happy hour is a sweet deal. It looks to get crowded at night, but a good strategy is to try to catch sunset from on high. You may have the bar pod to yourself.

"O" is quite a spectacle and is immensely impressive from a technical standpoint, but the actual performances left me a bit cold. This is the second time I have seen it -- the first was nearly 15 years ago and it left the same impression then.

Peter, the barber at Palazzo spa, is an ace with the straight razor. I say this as someone who has occasionally been butchered by the random Sweeny Todds at Art of Shaving. That said, the Canyon Ranch spa doesn't measure up to Qua at Caesars, or the Encore spa.

I'm on the fence about Bouchon Bistro (possibly because I am on the fence about French food in general). The food is impeccable, of course, but I don't feel comfortable there for some reason and the noise level prevents quiet conversation, which seems a bit at odds with the reputation of the place. That's for dinner; maybe the famous breakfast would be different.

A weekend bug out to Red Rock Resort in Summerlin. It's a great place; it really does have everything and it's remarkably easy on the wallet by comparison to the Strip. Strong restaurant selection, above average rooms, good gambling facilities with reasonable blackjack, an active poker room, even bingo (I didn't check the VP payouts). If you're the type to just stay in one the property your whole trip it would be hard to imagine anything better. If you must bring kids, it would be good choice, unless you are keen on getting them the advanced education they would get from a walk on the Strip or Fremont.

Managed a couple of forays into State parks, including hikes at Valley of Fire and Mt. Charleston. Both are true gems and less than an hour's drive away. Highly recommended when you need a break from a VP beatdown and your Verbena buzz turns sour.

So like I said, despite my above gripes, it was a good time. It always is.

Tuesday, November 07, 2017

The Month That Was - October 2017

The days grow short. I am driving home in the dark. Jacket is now required. I'm thinking of pulling the potted plants in and planning Thanksgiving in Vegas and a long weekend in Florida in December. They say we are in for a cold and snowy winter, and I believe them. We have had a couple of mild ones in a row.

Ah well, I suppose I will survive as always.

[TV] Toob Notes: Halt and Catch Fire
[Travel] Western Swing
[Movies] Flick Check: Spider Man: Homecoming
[Tech] [Rant] Amazon, You're (a little) Dead to Me

[TV] Toob Notes: Halt and Catch Fire

Very nicely done. I'm giving it Pantheon status. After a misguided first season the final three were just spot on beautiful. Part of its beauty is the way it stood out against literally every other show on television. It was one of only two character driven shows of it's time (along with Better Call Saul), and it was the only one that didn't lean on criminality as a milieu. It took the business of business seriously, one of only two fictional TV shows I know of ever to do that (along with Mad Men).

The thoughtfulness with which the characters were handled became plain in the arcs. All four main characters went through growth arcs, but in the end they were still themselves.

Joe -- always searching for the next big thing came to see the next big thing was only of importance in how it affected humanity. "The thing that gets us to the thing" is what he was all about and he came to realize both things are us.

Gordon -- the pure engineer. The non-logical nuances often escaped him but he would always come around. And if he was never quick at personality assessment, he came to accept that about himself and move cautiously in that arena. In one of the most perfect developments in all fiction, he got to spend his final day successfully fixing something.

Cameron -- never got over her need to rebel. Her hatred of depending on anyone else for anything was given a source in her family. Like Gordon she had to accept her limitations but in this case it was not a happy acceptance. She seems doomed to forever kill anything that would keep her connected. The horrible ironic twist for her is that her extreme independence means that in the end she will always be dependent on people like...

Donna -- the manager, the compromiser. The one who masters the rules. The one who perhaps sees others the most clearly. The one who reminds the others that their dreams only exist in the real world because of people like her which leads to the inevitable subtext of hostility that creates. And like everyone else, she never quit being who she is, she just realizes it and works with it to live better. Her key revelation is her regretful remembrance of Gordon: "He did so many thing wrong. And I told him about every one."

That is beautiful. That, my friends, is how you do fiction. I'm gonna miss this show and these characters.

We are left with Better Call Saul as the sole remaining quality drama on TV, although there are so many shows getting made these days, between Netflix and Amazon and YouTube etc., that I can't keep up. It's possible there is another gem out there that I don't know about. I like my silly comedies and action shows as much as the next guy, but I do fear for the continued existence of quality drama on TV. I guess we'll see.

BTW - the Pantheon consists of The Sopranos, Deadwood, The Wire, Mad Men, Breaking Bad, Halt and Catch Fire, and almost certainly Better Call Saul. I'm open to suggestions to anything else, new or old, but the bar is awfully high.

[Travel] Western Swing

Happily, as I am shopping for a new car, my rental car was a hybrid -- a Ford Fusion -- very nice, amazingly efficient, no drivability issues, but there were some alarming sounds from the brakes at a couple of points. Still I wouldn't hesitate to go hybrid; it left a good taste in my mouth. Maybe a RAV4 hybrid -- or a CMax. The rental spec Fusion left a lot to be desired in the infotainment department. It connected to my tablet but would only play songs on any given album in alphabetical order and then only after a solid five minutes of "indexing". It was XM capable but no one had bothered to activate it. I should have tried myself. Still I'm sure that was just the low end rental version. I suspect Ford's actual infotainment options are significantly better.

But I was travelling Out West, which is what this post is about. This time for a half marathon in and around the city of Page, AZ and Lake Powell. It was shaping up to be unpleasant; cold (about 40) and windy (wind is worse that cold) and dark start. I had to get there at 5:30 AM to pick up my packet and race didn't start until 6:30 AM. Sunrise was going to be after 7 AM. As a result, I was not in the best frame of mind waiting in my car to stay warm for the start. But the glow of sunrise had begun at gun time and the wind had died considerably and race adrenaline kicked in. After about 3 miles through the town of Page, the sun rose and we were treated to jaw dropping views of Lake Powell and the Glen Canyon dam and the majestic red rock mesas and surrounding mountains. And it wasn't just a brief glimpse, the views surrounded us the rest of the way the rest of the way. I have run quite of number of scenic races out west and this was easily the most beautiful of all.

The next day, in contrast, the temps were touching 80. I made a visit to Lee's ferry and a brief hike along the Colorado river. There is quite an interesting beach there, of all things, I'm confused why in the hot weather there wasn't anyone else there. It seems tailor-made for an afternoon dip in the cool water.

About Page: it's a small town -- not poor, but there are no luxuries to be found. You will find no meals beyond sports bar level and no lodgings superior to, say, a Hampton Inn. It has a dominant Navajo population and a preponderance of Christian churches of various denominations. There appears to be little industry besides tourism, which is steady, although there is a large factory of some sort just outside town. There also appear to be sections of upper middle class housing that I would guess are rental homes. Some of these homes would have views out their living room windows that would make an acrophobic blanche.

I stayed a bit longer in Page because the following day I made a mad dash in the morning to Kanab Utah, about an hour away. You see there is a hiking destination called the Wave that is a dream hike for many. The undulating layered red rock is iconic, but there is a catch. Only about 20 people a day are given permits to hike there. You can get in a lottery for one of ten permits months in advance -- I tried and was not selected, or you can show up the day before and get in a lottery for one of another ten permits the next day. That's why I headed to Kanab -- that's where the lottery is held. For next-day permits, the process is to show up by 9. You are led into a room with everyone else and you fill in an application and given a number (1 per group). Then, like bingo, the ranger draws numbers and if your number comes up your group can go provided there are enough permits left to cover your group. If chosen you have to hike the next day or not at all. If not chosen, you go home muttering about the unfairness of it all. There were about 35 groups vying for 10 permits. I ended up going home muttering. Some people had been showing up multiple days in row and had been rebuffed multiple days in a row. On the one hand, it is really annoying and inconvenient, and the randomness makes trip planning a real crap shoot, he muttered. On the other hand, it makes for a story and raises the status of having hiked to the Wave and make you an object of envy if you get there. I'm sure I'll try again some day.

In any event, I consoled myself with a visit to the North Rim of the Grand Canyon. The snooty, outdoorsy types will tell you the the North Rim is preferable to the South as it is less crowded and less touristy. True. There is a single lodge, a spare couple of retail outlets, and a herd of Bison. It's also a solid hour to anything remotely considered a town. It also, I think, contains more visual drama in an accessible dose. The South Rim is so sprawling that it's really hard to grasp in a single view. That said, if I was travelling with a family, I would take the fun, amusement park style South Rim with all of it's commercial ventures.

Page is a great base of operations for exploring Northern Arizona. It is central and reasonably priced and with great infrastructure. I could easily see settling in there for two or three weeks and just racking up the explorations and experiences. But I didn't have two or three weeks so I moved on, leaving much undone.

Next came relocation to Sedona. Whether approaching heading south or leaving heading north I highly recommend taking route 179 rather than the more indirect but faster freeway route. It winds and climbs through something approaching a thick alpine forest -- just a stunningly beautiful drive. I'm not sure if it is technically alpine forest or not, but it is as richly and thickly wooded as any place you would call the north woods. Coming in from the north you climb through the woods and then descend into a more traditional red rock area, but you are still at a much higher elevation than Page or the low desert around Phoenix, so the red rock vistas infused by patches of evergreen forest.

Sedona itself is remarkably wealthy. Enormous mesas and mountains loom in every direction as a backdrop to the town, and many people have built modernist mansions in the foothills. You can see them peppered about looking precisely positioned to maximize their views.

Sedona is also the global leader in new-age-ism. They speak of vortexes where the world energy is focused and there are numerous psychics in town and they must do a decent business because I have seen them in business for many years now, often in posh diggings that cannot be cheap to rent.

Hippies aside, judging from the crowd the big demographic, tourist and otherwise, is retirees. There's a lot of gray wandering about the red rocks. And good for them. When I'm in my seventies (which is sooner than I like to admit) I hope to still be plowing through the red rock trails. It beats the hell out of mall walking or shuffleboard.

Unexpectedly for such a high end town, dining options aren't that great. There is a lot of Southwest cuisine, plenty of American Bistros (often cowboy themed), but surprisingly little that stands out as high quality and interesting. About the best place in town is called The Hudson which is on the chic side, but with a friendly happy hour and an emphasis on the fresh and creative. Apart from that, the best food I had was actually at my hotel, The Hilton Sedona at Bell Rock. I think it goes back the retirees again. They might be more inclined toward standard and reliably good, as opposed to the creative and, let's face it, probably overpriced.

Snooty griping about luxuries aside, Sedona is a top notch outdoor destination. You can, and I have, easily fall into a rhythm of a hike in the morning and afternoon drinks by the pool. My first full day included a hike of Brin's Mesa, in which I only got lost once so...victory, followed by some work on my tan.

The next and final day my thought was to rent a mountain bike and hit the trails, but I am not a young man anymore and frankly, after a week of solid activity I decided to chill. I took some time in the morning to wander around the Chapel of the Holy Cross, an iconic landmark just south of town. Architecturally fascinating, it appears to emerge directly from the red rock perch on which is sits. It is a Roman Catholic chapel, though not a church as there are no regular services -- though there appears to be a weekly prayer group led by a local priest. It would serve well as a quiet place for meditation and prayer -- very appropriate for Sedona -- although it seems more used as a stop for tourists to get some photos of the startling views. I certainly took my share of photos.

After that I headed into town for a quick lunch and to remind myself of what a beautiful little spot Sedona is, pretentiousness aside. It's as if the town in the possession of, or perhaps under the protection of, the surrounding imposing mountains. It's easy to see how the hippies came to believe this spot had a special connection to the world. For my part I took a walk along Oak Creek -- a river that runs behind the row of shops and high end resorts on the east side of town. A day tripper would never know of it's existence, but a crooked, patchwork walkway can be followed a for half a mile or so. It's just a lovely peaceful stroll from the north end of town ending at roughly the ultra high-end L'auberge de Sedona resort.

It was a terrific way to spend my final day. That evening I gave in to the call of reality and began packing my clothes and checking email and generally prepping for life back home. Throughout this trip I was getting the urge to stay longer -- that is to say, I have never been away from home for more than two weeks in my life. I'm beginning to wonder if it would be a good experience to try to arrange something longer -- a full month, say. Not on the move the whole time, but actually settle in somewhere for a month and see how it feels and what new experiences I would have. Somewhere in the southwest might be a likely spot for that -- given my familiarity. Worth contemplating.

For now, I'm just glad I completed a half-marathon and therefore haven't aged beyond the ability to do that. I've also confirmed my impressions of northern Arizona as pretty much road trip heaven. I doubt I have seen the last of it.

Apropos - My previous trip to this area.

[Movies] Flick Check: Spider Man: Homecoming

Spider Man: Homecoming was the perfect superhero antidote for the dreary Wonder Woman. One of the most impressive aspects of it is how many very good production decisions were made.
  • No origin story. Really is there anyone alive that does not know that Peter Parker was bitten by a radioactive spider. We don't need to see that again.
  • Peter as a real kid in high school. A wee little adolescent, not a young adult - an actual kid. This dovetails well with...
  • Tony Stark as his mentor (and father figure), apart from giving us more Robert Downey Jr., opens up so much opportunity character arcs and interactions beyond standard Spidey trying to live a secret life and the problems it causes. Also...
  • It means Spidey is in a world where he is vulnerable to more than just the villain threatening his friends and family. There are bigger conflicts.
As a result of all this we got all the good stuff from previous Spidey films -- the problems of youth and secret identities, but we also got so much more.

Of course none of that would matter if the execution failed and it did not. The writing was typically quick-witted, although it did seem forced at a few points, but even when it did the actors saved it. If there is one thing the DC/XMen movie makers haven't figured out, and Kevin Feige has, it's how to find actors who can deliver on comedy. This is Marvel's secret weapon.

Spider Man: Homecoming may actually be the best acted Marvel film yet. For the bulk of the movie it's light-hearted irony punctuated with sharp action. But there is a moment about two thirds of the way through when the tone changes, and things get serious, and it's perfect -- thanks mostly to the spot performance by Michael Keaton as the Vulture. A subtle and convincing villain elevates any superhero flick and Keaton really comes through here pushing things to another level.

You may know I was a huge fan of the original Spider Man film with Tobey Maguire. I think it was the film that showed how good the stories of my comic book adolescence could work as movies. But it is no longer the best Spider Man movie, Homecoming is. It slides into the upper echelon of Marvel films quite easily, and therefore one of the best action films ever made.

I should revise my list of top ten action films. Pretty sure it would be 7/10 Marvel at this point.

[Tech] [Rant] Amazon, You're (a little) Dead To Me

Just a brief note to advise you never to buy Amazon hardware. Ever. I love Amazon. They publish all my books and I spend the bulk of my disposable income on their site. But I have been burned too many times by their hardware to ever buy another piece of Amazon brand electronics again.

I have owned a Fire Phone, a Fire HD tablet, and a Fire Stick and all have been outright crap. The Fire phone couldn’t keep a spotify playlist running and eventually the charger input jack ceased to function so I could never charge the phone. The Fire tablet so totally freaked out after a system upgrade that I had to get Amazon to do something magical to reset it, and after that it kept serving me ads when I paid for the ad free version.

Both the phone and the tablet made sideloading proper android apps from the Google play store a pain in the ass in an effort to limit you to purchasing apps from the Amazon app store only, which would have been fine if they would have at least kept semi current on the apps.

Now the Fire stick has developed a habit of resetting if I try to restart a streaming video after pausing it. What utter crap. Never again. I plan to replace the Fire stick with a Roku stick (my Roku has always been dead reliable).

Alexa is preemptively banned from my home.

Of course, I’ll probably buy the Roku Stick from Amazon.

Saturday, October 07, 2017

The Month That Was - September 2017

I've decide to use hexadecimal for my birthday which makes me 39 years old as of 9/13. What that means in the more common, crude decimal system I'll leave as an exercise for the reader (or the reader's access to Google). That would make me 3A next year, which look weird on internet forms and such.

Lots of reading this month, and I began the revision process of the first half of my next novel. I'm hoping that revising the first half will make the second half come into focus in my head.

Unlike last month I have no sense of the month as "lost", but it was personally and professionally frustrating, and I haven't been sleeping, and I am exhausted.

[Movies] Flick Check: Bad Heroes
[Tech] Technology Check Up
[Books] Book Look: Sputnik Sweetheart and Men Without Women

[Movies] Flick Check: Bad Heroes

Wonder Woman captured a lot of girl-power fancies, but it's simply not very good. This is of course not the fault of the girls in power; it's a DC film and so contains extended sequences of dull exposition, punctuated by plodding, ham-fisted action pieces. Honestly, it's a wonder they keep trying when even the weakest Marvel offerings clean their clocks.

In the interest of finding something good to say, I would point out the quasi-buddy-cop combo of Chris Pine and Gal Godot had its moments. Chris Pine is that rare thing in a DC film: an actor who can deliver comedy if needed. And Gal Godot is easy on the eyes, for sure. But there's little beyond that that isn't pure formula -- blockbuster by committee. Yawn.

Guardians of the Galaxy Vol 2 is also disappointing, but it's disappointing for a Marvel film which means it's still a cut above most other action movies. Lost was the organic storyline of the first film with the misfits coming together into the Guardians. The arc here is more forced, and therefore less fun. The Guardians are already the Guardians -- wisecracking, anti-hero buddies -- so efforts are made to mix them up into different combinations, but no special chemistry forms. Starlord gets his origin story via Kurt Russell as his father, but it is clearly contrived to forward the overall Marvel Universe narrative. All in all, it feels much more like a product, than a work of inspiration. The music selection is worse than the original, the writing dropped off, the snappy dialogue falls flat for the most part, and there is a certain clash of tone. Still it never descends into the level of suckitude of the DC films. The troop are still a strong comic ensemble and their sharp readings and personal charisma come through despite the poor script, although the only one I laughed out loud at this time was Dave Bautista.

The next superhero flick for me will be Spiderman: Homecoming, which I have high hopes for, then Thor: Ragnarok, then more Avengers will follow. It really is a treat getting to relive all these characters and stories from the comic books of my adolescence. Now that I am barrelling down on 60 these stories have officially lasted a lifetime. I don't know if it means adults today are more immature or adolescent nerds back then were sharper than we were given credit for, and I don't much care really, just glad I lived long enough to see an unfashionable devotion of my early teen years bubble up to the cultural top.

[Tech] Technology Check Up

Technology manages to simultaneously improve everything while pissing me off more and more.

Google Fi is a mixed bag. Despite the fact that I should have access to the strongest signal of T-Mobile, Sprint, and US Cellular, the coverage does not match Verizon. Also, the algorithm for choosing which signal is strongest may be wacked. I seem to always end up on Sprint when I could get more bars from T-Mobile. (For $1.99 I have bought an app that allows me to switch on my own, at least temporarily.) But there are holes in coverage. Driving through the northern Lower Peninsula there are tons of dead spots even along I-75. And in the little park just a couple miles from my house (say 10 miles outside Ann Arbor) connection is unreliable, making steaming music while running a problem. Still I rarely get a monthly bill over $30. Verizon unlimited is $75 before fees and taxes, a 2GB plan is $35 before fees and taxes. A "data-boost" on the fly to 3GB would be an extra $15 -- so all in let's say $50/month to go back to Verizon. When I am ready to upgrade my phone, the question will be if the $20 extra a month is worth it for solid coverage. I think it will be. But as with all my other expenses I think the phone will have to wait until next year. After all, I lived well over a half a century without streaming audio at my fingertips. I can hold out another few months.

I'm down on Google anyway having read this: A Serf on Google's Farm. Also, Android is still a usability dumpster fire.

Oddly enough, being a Drone in Amazon's Supply Chain doesn't bother me. (Believe it or not, I still get a trickle of royalties from my kindle books on Amazon.) I've been on Prime since forever, but I bought both a Fire Phone and a Fire Tablet -- both were utter failures, so it might seem strange that when I pick a music streaming service I selected Amazon Unlimited. Well, it was a couple bucks a month cheaper than Google Play Music or Spotify. Also, I'm down on Google, remember, and I used up my free trial on Spotify only to discover issues with their streaming -- playlists would just stop for no reason. Near as I can tell, they all have roughly the same size song library. Amazon Unlimited lacks the extensive playlists and radio stations of Spotify, but they are growing slowly. If I outgrow Amazon, I may try Spotify again, but for now it'll do.

The last annoyance is my car, the 2014 Acura TL. It still has the problem with vibrating at highway speeds that no one can seem to figure out. And the bluetooth has failed. Interestingly, apart from that it is a remarkable car -- as well constructed as any I have owned and I owned XV10 Camry (1992 to be exact), the high water mark for automotive quality to this day. The butter smooth V6 is an impressive combination of economy and power. Still, I came close to trading it in. It is not practical for an Exurbanite who needs to haul bicycles and bags of mulch on occasion. And since my commute went from 5 to 40 minutes last year I could handle something a even more economical -- like a hybrid.

Sadly, everything is going to have to do until after the first of the year. I've poured way too much money in the house this year to make any more big purchases -- especially with a couple of trips still ahead. Unless my laptop finally fails (and it seems to be holding up OK) I think I'm status quo for a while.

[Books] Book Look: Sputnik Sweetheart and Men Without Women, by Haruki Murakami

I seem to have serious inconsistencies in my taste. That's OK. I contain multitudes. Last month I expressed how dissatisfied I felt about David Lynch's Twin Peaks work. I found it vague and opaque to the point of inscrutability. I ended up being impressed by the atmospherics but rarely able to figure out the ultimate point. Haruki Murakami''s writing does the same thing to me, yet I love it. (I have previously pondered my uncharacteristic appreciation for Haruki-san.)

This month I happened to read a couple of his works. Sputnik Sweetheart was one of his mid-career novels, I believe it came just after his opus and the book that would make his reputation, Wind-Up Bird Chronicle. The second was Men Without Women, his latest book of short stories. Though separated by nearly 20 years, both books are about men dealing with the loss of loved women. In fact, I would find it very plausible if you told me that the stories in Men Without Women were unchosen plots from a Sputnik Sweetheart brainstorming session.

For the most part, the characters described are either misfits or loners -- to some extent they are all alienated -- and the love of a certain woman is the most powerful force in their lives. It takes many forms -- requited or unrequited, conventional or illicit -- but the love they feel is not really joyful, it's more of a haunting; a connection that, though deeply desired and needed, releases the fear and desperation in their souls. Although there is hope at the end of Sputnik..., Men... is darker and sadder. These are no Jay Gatsbys; their fates are emptiness, irresolution, and confusion and they accept it.

Haruki-san is wonderful as portraying withdrawn and lonely people without making them pitiful. So good that one suspects he is drawing on his own innate personality for archetypal feelings. Others, have suggested that he is trying to portray the overly conformist society of Japan, but that doesn't ring true to me. This feels very personal, not cultural. Naturally, since men and women are the principals there is the topic of sex to deal with. The sexual moments are told with a frankness that robs them of eros. There are some very erotic moments in these books, but they are not the directly sexual moments. Mostly, we are tracking the actions of people who in some sense are adrift, then they arrive at some sort of self-discovery, for better or worse. Occasionally they will be prompted to positive and direct action, but mostly they stroll through life, in a fog of self-misunderstanding, if not in outright fear.

Should you read Sputnik Sweetheart or Men Without Women? Yes. Although there are still mystical aspects (parallel worlds, dreams intruding on reality) they are not dominatingly front-and-center like they can be with Haruki-san. These stories are thoroughly relatable. Unless you require action and clear resolutions you'll find a lot material to stick with you. I would suggest starting with Sputnik Sweetheart as it has a fuller narrative, then follow up with Men Without Women if you want more.

Sunday, September 10, 2017

The Month That Was - August 2017

There was the eclipse, there was a triathlon, and the house finally got painted. The house took pretty much all summer. There was a delay to get approval on the colors from the homeowners association, there were intermittent rain delays throughout, there were two instances of stoppages over yellowjacket infestations, there was a delay to replace a bad window, then more delays to replace some rotting siding. It started in June and ended on Labor Day weekend. Whew. I still have a couple of windows to replace.

My car continues to needle me. There is the vibration problem that nobody can seem to fix. Now the bluetooth has died.

Piss and moan, piss and moan. It was a wonderful summer. If all my summers turn out like this one, I'll be a happy dude.

[Travel] My Own Public Idaho
[TV] Toob Notes

[Travel] My Own Public Idaho

I made a total hash of the trip planning, which is not like me at all. I pride myself on my trip planning -- finding the right balance of scheduled and impromptu time; knowing what is worth the extra money and what isn't. This time I mangled it such that not only was the travel more inconvenient than it needed to be, it cost me a small fortune.

I started out smart. This being ellipse travel, I secured my assets early -- an AirBnb in Ketchum, Idaho, and a flight to Bozeman, Montana, where I would rent a car and drive in. That was actually just fine, but, for some reason, months after making the arrangements I revisited them I could not remember why I booked into Bozeman, a 6 hour drive to Ketchum, when I could have booked into Boise, a 2 hour drive to Ketchum. I did a quick check on flights and there were open seats to Boise so to save me 4 hours on the road each way, I dropped some cash and switched my flight. (I could go on a mad rant about airlines charging fees to switch flights, but that would be futility incarnate.)

Then I go to switch my rental car to Boise and what do I discover but there are no cars available in Boise, except from a 1-star rated company that I would have to take a cab to from the airport and were charging in excess of $150 dollars per day. Evidently my head start had dissipated and the other eclipse travellers had snapped up all the rentals in Boise. F*ck me. Now I was hosed. I had no choice to but to switch my plane flight again to a bigger airport.

So I start looking at flights again and I realize that I can switch my flight to the much larger Salt Lake City airport and my drive time would be 4 hours each way so I'd still be shaving a couple of hours off my original plan. I bit the bullet and dropped more cash to change my flight again. Not having learned my lesson, I go to rent a car in Salt Lake City only to find there are none. F*ck me two times.

Yes, it was stupid not to check to see if cars were available first, but in I my own defense, let me point out that SLC is a huge airport and a Delta hub. I never contemplated the fact that such a place could have no cars available. Are the rental agencies incapable of moving cars around to satisfy demand? Last I checked cars were movable.

Dumbfounded and in disbelief, I had to drop even more cash for a another flight modification. This time, back to Bozeman where I originally started and was able to reserve a car. So I spent a few days hemorrhaging cash to end up exactly where I started. Worse in fact, because my new flights included a three-legged red-eye back home. I was too stunned by the turn of events to smash my head against the desk. I cannot emphasize how unlike me this is. In most cases, anyone who is privy to my travel planning will be summarily impressed, but this time I couldn't have mangled things any worse if I had been sniffing glue.

Arriving in Ketchum, I checked in to my Airbnb (a first for me) and took a stroll around town. Ketchum is famous for being the place that Ernest Hemingway blew his own brains out. What it is now is an up and coming hipster town. I heard it described as "like Aspen twenty years ago". I gather they get a fair amount of celebrity visitors for ski season; the renowned Sun Valley Resort is a mile or two away. The town itself is so-so. Not really very beautiful, but clean and walkable. Usually in such places you get outstanding restaurants but there was only one I found that had food that was particularly good, that was the Sawtooth Brewery and Public House. Everywhere else the food was mediocre. The most famous place in town is the Pioneer, an old school, north woods bar and steakhouse. Of course, the place is packed with people trying to have "the experience" of being there. I couldn't get a seat at the bar at any time during my stay.

Ketchum was in the path of totality for about one minute, but an hour north was the tiny town of Stanley, which was set to get a full two minutes of total eclipse. When you're photographing an event like this, a hundred things can go sideways so that extra minute of totality was worth pursuing. It was Friday; the eclipse was Sunday. That gave me two days to strategize my location or photos. You see, the big topic of discussion was the impending cosmic traffic jam. The warnings were dire and the evidence supported it what with airports being out of rental cars. The supposed likelihood was that over the weekend more and more people would pour into the path of totality and a huge swath of the West would be gridlocked. With that in mind, I began general reconnoitering and developing contingencies.

The road north to Stanley is a lovely drive. It starts with a long picturesque run towards Galena Peak. It looks like one of those inspirational memes people post on facebook with some caption about the journey being more important than the destination. It runs roughly along the Salmon River -- lots of fishermen -- with rustic scenery and distant mountains on either side. As you approach Galena Peak the road transforms into one of those winding mountain roads that would bother someone afraid of heights. Along the way there are a number of turn-outs, including one that is manned by park rangers at least part time, to get views of the Sawtooth Wilderness region from on high. You then descend off the peak and back to flat road this time with mostly ranchland on either side. Eventually you pull into Stanley, but before I get to that, let me point out that Idaho was well prepared for eclipse visitors. There were alerts posted everywhere, cautioning drivers that traffic could be very heavy. Along the way between Ketchum and Stanley there were numerous designated eclipse viewing areas -- large open spaces with room for campers and parking and plenty of port-a-potties. I found that very impressive. These folks didn't decry the crowds or accept that they were in for a day or two of chaos -- they took active and constructive action to makes things easier on people at their own cost. That's pretty rare in government at any level.

In Stanley proper, pop. 68, they were bracing for a mad rush also. Make-shift signs were everywhere, food carts were out slinging BBQ and beer. I parked and took the lay of the land. Stanley looks to be a very seasonal place -- dedicated to outdoor activities in the surrounding area. Whitewater rafting seems big, as does fishing and mountain biking. There look to be quite a few choices for lodging from basic hotel/motel to rustic cabins with firewood for heat. There are also a couple of cool places to eat beyond just the standard bar food -- Redd's is a tiny converted red house with some truly delicious sandwiches for lunch. If you want a wilderness experience where each days ends with a tasty meal, Stanley might be your place. Likely best avoided in winter, though.

There is plenty of camping in the surrounding area, as you might guess, and the gem location is just south of Stanley proper at Redfish Lake. I don't know if it is technically an alpine lake but it certainly carries all the characteristics -- cold clear water, pine forest all around -- the stand out feature is the multiple beaches begging to be lounged upon. Redfish Lake and it's associated lodge would be a top choice for a vacation in the area. It might actually be my pick next time around.

So having taken in the landscape, I formulated a plan. The morning of the eclipse I would pack my camera gear in the car and head north. I would go as far as the traffic would let me. Ideally I would get all the way to Stanley. If not there, maybe one of the designated viewing areas, or one to the overlooks on Galena Peak. Even if things were so bottled up I couldn't get out of Ketchum, I still noted a couple of interesting places I could set up right in town and cross my fingers nothing when wrong in photography.

Sunday came and went and around town the conversations turned to how quiet everything was and how maybe this wouldn't turn out to be anything more "cosmic" than a typical holiday weekend. I took the opportunity to do some photography and a drive up to Redfish Lake for a late afternoon swim. The lake bed is mostly rounded off rocks, no sharp edges but careful stepping is required. It was no small matter getting used to the cold water, but it was as refreshing as possible. There is something to be said for a nice lengthy soak in cold water and its effect on weary muscles. Surrounded by forests and mountains; paddleboarders and kayakers gliding out on the lake with sun sinking. It was a like a scene from a travel magazine. I was getting to like Idaho. Back in Ketchum the talk around town was that all the media hyperbole may have scared everyone away so the feared traffic apocalypse might not be so bad.

Monday came, the big day, and I was up early ready to implement whatever contingency was required. None was. I hit the road and was free and clear. I barrelled north to Stanley with only the slightest noticeable increase in traffic. There were crowds at the overlooks on Galena Peak, but the designated viewing areas were barely touched. In Stanley, the parking areas and banks of port-o-potties were barely touched. Well, well, well. So much for the traffic jam of cosmic proportions. Sad for the businesses that laid in extra supplies and scheduled extra workers, but good for me.

I setup my camera and tripod at pretty much the center of town, near some people who had much more sophisticated equipment that I did. I had bought the cheapest telephoto lens I could find and some disposable solar filters. Others had multiple full frame cameras with live connections to the internet and laptop displays. Someone else had a telescope of some sort from which he was projecting the eclipse image onto a screen. My el cheapo setup wasn't working out too well. The camera and lens combination (650mm) were proving so heavy that the tripod was not strong enough to stabilize it. I could locate the sun but could not lock it in because there was so much play in the connection between the lens and the tripod. As a result, every time I wanted to shoot, I ended up having to re-locate the sun. I got pretty good at it, but it was worrisome considering when totality hit I would have only two minutes.

Folks were milling about, settling in getting coffee and bagels from the vendors and such. Others were wandering around passing out free eclipse glasses to anyone who didn't already have them. Then someone said "It's starting!" For roughly an hour and a half, the moon moved steadily across the sun towards totality. I began taking shots. Every ten to fifteen minutes I would go to my camera, re-locate the sun, steady it as best I could, and knock off 10 or 12 photos. In between I would look using my glasses or chat with the other folks hanging around or just sit on a conveniently placed rock.

Observation: all the way through to totality, or at least up to 99%, you have to use glasses. Through my camera I could see, and shoot, the crescent sun at various phases, but even the slimmest sliver of the sun uncovered is enough to blind you or light the world. At the point of full totality is when things really change. As the moon moves across the sun the skies get perceptibly darker, but it is not a big difference. It's about the same effect as cloud cover moving over the sun. Once totality comes you are plunged into darkness as if night fell in an instant. The temperature plunges. You remove your eclipse glasses and look directly at the sun; those pictures you've seen of the coronal ring are pretty much exactly what it looks like. As a final treat, the horizon glows like sunset, all 360 degrees of it. I confess I was semi-braced for disappointment as such events that are hyped like this often fall short, but not this one. I was awestruck. Better yet, I was able to lock in on the black hole in the sky and get a number of great shots.

I can see how such an event would have been terrifying to primitive people. Without solar filters you don't know the moon is moving across the sky to the sun, you can't see it at all. For you the day would be going on normally, maybe you notice the sky darken a bit but you probably wouldn't even look up, thinking it was just an errant cloud. Then suddenly night would fall. You'd look to the sun but only see a great black hole where it was supposed to be. You'd feel the cold in your bones. The human brain's remarkable ability to generalize trends would cause you to think the world was going to end. If you were lucky the terror would only last a couple of minutes, but in the right circumstances, a total eclipse can run over seven minutes -- that's enough time to sacrifice a virgin or something. Luckily there was no such drastic activity in Stanley, Idaho. There were audible oohs and ahhs, though.

The calculated time passed and the moon begins to slide off. The eclipse glasses and solar filters go back on. It would be another hour and a half to complete the passing. I took some more shots but the sun rose far enough that I couldn't get my tripod angled high enough to lock in anymore, so I called it complete. I packed up my gear and threw it in the trunk then wandered about Stanley a bit.

The more time I spent there the more I liked it. They appear to be in the early stages of growth and I can't imagine them failing for better or worse. As a summer recreation destination, it would be most amazing. If I had more on the ball, I'd buy up some property there.

And that was that. The only traffic I ran into was about a ten minutes delay getting back into Ketchum. The next morning it was up and off on my six hour drive back to Bozeman and my triple-legged red-eye back home. I am so glad I did this trip. Despite the enormous expense and monumental screw ups in planning, it ended being a great one. The eclipse experience and the discovery of Stanley were so very worth it. I need more Stanley and more eclipses in my life.

[TV] Toob Notes

Game of Thrones has become an exercise in fan service. It was good fun, but not great TV. The nihilistic, amoral, unjust show of the first five seasons is gone. Going forward, we can feel safe that in the end, the good guys will win, the bad guys will get their comeuppance, and Westros will become a beacon of Democracy and Civil Rights. Ah well, I suppose it was inevitable. In the immortal words of Ian McShane, "It's just tits and dragons, baby." Still feels like a missed opportunity to me. Won't stop me from watching.

Twin Peaks: The Return is beyond me. I chose that word "beyond" carefully. I'm tempted to say there is no point, or it doesn't make any sense, but some people seem to see a lot of substance and artistic value, including some people I know to be thoughtful and reasonable.

In a way, it reminds me of the free jazz of Ornette Coleman or the atonal classical music of Philip Glass. I hear little snippets that seem like something coherent but the general effect is random noises. Again, I have no doubt this is a shortcoming in me. The people who do see artistry in this sort of thing are not posers. They are often studied and skilled in music, they just hear something that I cannot.

Twin Peaks makes me feel the same. I see some cool stuff. The astonishing, haunting images; the otherworldly soundscape; the archetype characters (and wonderful casting). It can be an arresting experience at certain moments. But I couldn't follow the plot or even tell you what it was about. Characters appear as deus ex machina, some seem to start character arcs only to be abandoned, some seem to have no relevance to anything going on. If there is meaning in the odd special effects and strange forms that appear to be embodied beings I couldn't figure it out. Some of it was maddening. The camera could linger on the expressionless faces of the actors long after a scene was over. There were extended repetitive shots of the mundane -- a forest clearing or a passing road. Those stretches would have me turning to my laptop to check facebook.

But enough of what I read about it -- from solid, unpretentious sources -- seems to indicate that there is a substance, just in a form that doesn't touch me. Fair enough, but, in my own defense, my taste is not entirely prosaic. I am one of the 5 people in the world who understood and appreciated John from Cincinnati.

FWIW, This is the Water and This is the Well is perhaps the creepiest thing I have ever seen in any medium, yet I have no idea of its dramatic purpose.

Halt and Catch Fire is back and it has started at pantheon level quality. In its last season, it is the best show on television, not to be challenged until Better Call Saul comes back. If you haven't seen it, binge it from the start and be patient -- the first season is only sort of good, then it takes off like a rocket.

The Defenders benefitted from having the correct expectations set. It was going to be an entertaining binge-able, with many cool moments but enough glaring thuds in plot and dialogue to fall short of being anything special. It was an exercise in puppeteering characters around so they could get in cool fights and say cool things to each other. That's fine. We knew it would be little else. But the fights themselves were flat, uninspired, and borderline incoherent at times. The cool things they said were, really just sort of dull, although the actors usually nailed the timing. In the end it left me wondering why, if the bad guys were going to destroy New York City, why didn't someone just call the Avengers and be done with it.

Episodes, a Showtime comedy, just started it's fifth season. You've probably never heard of it. It has no buzz. There is no stylish concept. It is fictional story of a couple of fish-out-of-water British screenwriters who get intertwined with a fictional Matt LeBlanc, played as a total asshole by real Matt LeBanc. The series has its ups and downs but it never fails to crack me up at least once an episode. The scripts approach absurdity, but the comic acting is absolutely first rate. Not worthy of legend, but worthy of much more than it gets.

Monday, August 07, 2017

The Month That Was - July 2017

As usual, I'm not sure where a summer month disappeared to. The big story for me was completing my first century -- a hundred mile bike ride. This was done in the course of participating in One Helluva Ride (it goes through Hell, Michigan, natch). It was enough to exhaust me for several days afterword.

I also made a too-brief trip down to Hilton Head, with requisite sidebars to Charleston and Savannah. I hadn't been to this area in many years and it is as lovely as I remember -- also as hot and sticky as I remember. Had an apartment in the Sea Pines Resort -- which is a sprawling, heavily wooded country club-ish resort with thousands of homes/condos/hotels rooms in various forms of ownership. The services were great and setting was wonderful. To the point I would consider it for retirement. Alternatively, as a place for a couple of months in the winter. It's not warm in the winter, but it's not Michigan cold either, averaging around 60 for a high. I should summarize my latest thoughts on retirement in a subsequent month.

[Ann Arbor, Dexter] Going Local
[Books] Book Look: The Three Body Problem
[Sports] Bore de France

[Ann Arbor, Dexter] Going Local

Our emotions just come to us, unbidden. It makes no sense to ever tell someone they "shouldn't feel that way." They have no choice. Feelings are not selected, they just appear, presumably based on some inscrutable calculus from the haphazard wiring in our brains. It follows that you should never beat yourself up over having certain feelings, however ugly they may be, because you really don't have much choice. How you respond to the feelings defines how you live or die.

So in those times when you are depressed or in despair, if you understand that these feelings may not be sourced from objective reality but may be the result of quasi-random chemical processes in your head, you have a way to fight them. In my case, I reflect on what I would miss from my life if it was gone. If I suddenly found myself in a locked cell with no hope of escape, what are the things I would wish I was doing instead. Or put another way, having lived long enough to look back at different periods of my life and think of the good times I had, I pause to think about what I do today that will be the source of good memories in the future. In the words of your grandma: "Count your blessing and be grateful!"

That was a very long-winded and weird intro. What I really want to tell you is that one of the things I am truly grateful for is where I live. I have spent almost the entirety of my adult life living in and around Ann Arbor, MI.

Ann Arbor is the bubbliest of bubbles. It's also the collegiest of college towns. The enormous University of Michigan insulates us from all kinds of economic woes, by providing an influx of 30,000 students or student-like creatures for 8 months out of the year. It ensures that our population will be among the best educated in the country. The immense transfer of wealth via government grants, the student loan firehose, and college sports, to the University and the trickle down to the local economy is the ultimate Golden Goose. There are other thriving industries in the city and surrounding areas -- health care is huge and auto suppliers are plentiful -- but every knows who the 900 pound gorilla is.

Beyond the financial featherbed, Ann Arbor itself has many charms. It refers to itself as "Tree Town, USA" and it's a fitting moniker. For a city of its size it is remarkably and self-consciously verdant. There are parks on almost every corner. Walking pathways abound and in fact have
been a particular source of attention of late, the City spending a large sum to build up an elaborate, connected web pathways through scenic areas and extending miles into the adjacent counties.

In fact, Ann Arbor could be a good example of how success can feed upon itself, spiraling into even greater success. The University attracts talented, creative people who then become so attached to the city they stay and either follow their dreams (open a brewery, start a yoga studio, whatever) or they feed the adjacent industries with STEM talent. Once settled, these folks demand quality -- good schools and public services -- and they are willing to pay for it, which ends up pricing out people who can't along with people who won't, but being even more attractive to those who can. Thus the bubble feeds and grows.

Crime is very low. There is the occasional late night robbery or assault, almost always perpetrated by someone from the rougher towns to the east on the I-94 corridor. Non-violent crimes are often committed by the homeless, but even they are under control. Ann Arbor has built itself such a glorious homeless shelter that the homeless are mostly careful to mind their Ps and Qs or get run out of town to one of the filthy shelters in other, less-abiding cities.

The attitude towards the homeless in Ann Arbor is very telling. When I first moved to Ann Arbor back in Nineteen and Seventy-eight, the homeless were more prominent and aggressive. They reached a point where they were becoming a detriment to business downtown. Committees were committed and initiatives were initiated and eventually the City of Ann Arbor voted in fairly severe restrictions on homeless activities in an attempt to chase them away. They put signs in their windows asking pedestrians to not give money. Basically we were treated to the spectacle of the proud scions of social justice and the live-simply hippies being as uncharitable as possible to the local downtrodden.

Politically, Ann Arbor is about as lefty as it gets. I offer no judgement on the value of that, I merely state it as fact. I also note that virtually all bubbles are filled with lefties -- it is an open question as to whether Liberals create bubbles or bubbles create Liberals. I have a couple of friends who I believe to be Conservatives of some stripe but they wisely never engage in political discussions or otherwise make it known that they disagree with the mass of those around them so I can't be sure. They would be stigmatized at a minimum and possibly even lose friends. This is an activity the local Liberal majority would state is wrong in principle and that they would never engage in such behavior, but I have seen it in action. It is enlightening though, to see how those in power wantonly indulge in behavior they would make a principled stand against were the other side doing it and how, when confronted with this, cognitive dissonance sets in and word meanings are massaged and facts deflected to allow them to keep their noble self image.

This has little affect on me, having long ago given up on political dogma or even carrying political opinions. And though I see it in the Left, I know that is because I am surrounded by the Left. Were I surrounded by the Right, I would see it in them. Could you be happy in Ann Arbor if you were an ardent and vocal supporter of Donald Trump? Not unless you liked conflict -- which as an ardent and vocal supporter of Donald Trump, you probably do -- or you avoided such conversations, which really isn't that high a cost. I avoid them out of personal taste and it causes me no grief.

Despite the monolithic political composition, Ann Arbor hasn't completely gone off the deep end like say, San Francisco or some such place. I note that the at the de riguer city council meeting on the problem of gentrification, nobody suggested rent control or other forms of destructive utopianism. One councilman seemed to wish we had it but even he saw it was unrealistic. Most of the quoted seem to have a solid understanding of supply and demand. Many saw the upside of Ann Arbor gentrification for the surrounding communities to get some trickle-down prosperity. That's actually pretty cool.

Aside: Does anyone remember the scourge of "urban blight"? That was a big deal 20 or 30 years ago. It was destroying our cities. Now its polar opposite, "gentrification", is destroying our cities. It seems whichever direction we go our cities will be destroyed.

I actually no longer live in Ann Arbor proper. I live in one of those adjacent communities that so benefits from the trickle-out prosperity, the little town of Dexter; the first city to the immediate west. As a rule communities to the East are low end (Ypsilanti, parts of Pittsfield and Superior Townships), communities to the West are higher end (Dexter, Chelsea). North or South is a bit of a mix. But, yes, the councilman was correct. They all benefit from the Ann Arbor spill over.

When I first moved to Dexter it still had one foot in its rural past, and to be sure, there are still flashes of country life, if in odd places. You might see a post in the local facebook group about a cow that got free or chickens on the loose or, sadly, a barn fire. That's rare, though; Dexter is filled with Upper Middle Class and the associated good schools, strong real estate, traffic woes, severe development controls, craft breweries, and the full slate of bubbly culture. Frankly, I'm delighted. I wouldn't want to live any other way. We build our bubbles to enhance our well-being and my being is quite well. If I have any sorrow or struggle in my life it is almost certainly internal at this point, which is about the best we can do.

This post was a looooong route to explaining why I am grateful to live where I do. It is a blessing that I count. I don't know how long it will last. A good financial hit or health problem could push me out of the bubble. But for now I'll enjoy it and be grateful.

[Books] Book Look: The Three Body Problem, by Liu Cixin.

Longtime readers may know that -- as a rule -- I am not enthused by "genre" fiction. It can work well as a fun distraction, but it is almost always too riddled with cliche, manipulation, and exposition to be of any literary value. But there are exceptions and The Three Body Problem is one of them.

In summary, the The Three Body Problem is a very original story in the alien invasion genre. It is a bit of a slow burn as we follow the the plot of the alien contact through flashbacks over the course of the book, not getting the full picture until the later stages. The aliens, it seems, live on a planet that has three suns. This arrangement causes massive swings in climate such that there are varying periods of seemingly random lengths during which the inhabitants can live. The defense they have evolved against this is the ability to "dehydrate" -- essential mummify themselves until the climate resumes in a livable state. The livable periods can vary from a few hundred to thousands of years, but with each livable period civilization must be rebuilt. Eventually one of the civilizations manages to discover a planet nearby (Earth) and is able to construct ships to take them there. There is no question this is an invasion as they are in cahoots with a group of quislings on Earth and have more or less stated their intentions. This is where is gets interesting. There are a group of scientists who are dedicated to defending the Earth, a group of quislings who wants to welcome the aliens as our new overlords who will educate and advance us since we are failures, and lastly a group of quislings who welcome the aliens as destroyers -- believing humanity is such a destructive force that it would be better wiped from the Earth entirely. Did I mention the author is Chinese?

Over the past few years I have read a fair bit of popular Chinese fiction and one thing that I find interesting is how the hellish spectre of the Cultural Revolution hovers over the Chinese mind. The initial contact with the aliens is by a woman whose life was destroyed and whose soul was shredded during the Cultural Revolution. She receives a message from an alien dissident that warns her that exposing Earth to his kind will result in invasion and possibly the genocide of humanity. She thinks about it and reveals herself anyway because the notion of value and meaning to human life has been so thoroughly ripped from her by horrific experiences. Couple this with the idea that a group of nihilists (interestingly, philosophically rooted in environmentalism) could grab power to the point where they might achieve total destruction and you begin to see how this story would spring from a mind that had the horrors and insanity of the Cultural Revolution to draw on.

Still, this is science fiction. So there are equal parts interesting ideas and implausible plot points, luckily a lid is kept on the technical blather. But the characters here are a cut above. Liu has a keen eye for motivations. The tragedies and triumphs are well fleshed out from a human standpoint. The prose and dialogue are solid, not drone-y or tone deaf as is the case in most sci-fi. It made for a fascinating and compelling read. At the conclusion of a chapter, it's not often I am chomping at the bit for the next, but that was not unusual here.

Because of our current era, everyone who reads this will likely see it as a parable for a danger they see on the horizon. In the afterword, Liu specifically notes that it is not a political book, and you will certainly not find a down-the-line litany of symbolism for this cause or that. For example, the good guys are clearly pro-science and the nihilists are anti-science, however the nihilists are also environmentalists while the good guys are, shall we say, human-chauvinists. If you want to you'll be able to twist and turn the ideological conflicts to validate your feelings. I suggest you don't, or at least you look for large philosophical themes over direct addressing of the issues of the day.

So should you read The Three Body Problem. I would say yes. Even if you hate sci-fi, the you'll likely connect with the characters. If you love garden-variety sci-fi, there is enough of an action novel of ideas to keep you going. There is a good chance, though, you'll find something more, either emotionally or intellectually. By the way, at the book's close, the aliens are about 400 years away. There are two sequels. I am on the fence about reading those. I fear they will take a turn for the worse -- i.e. be conventional. I might want to let this one sit just in my head as is.

[Sports] Bore de France

I remain one of the nine total Americans who follow the Tour De France. This year's race left a lot to be desired. It was almost a forgone conclusion that Chris Froome would win. His team, Team Sky, buys all the high end cycling talent up and stays laser focused on the Tour from the instant the previous year's Tour is complete. The race organizers did what they could to make it more competitive -- reduce the number of finishes on the tops of mountains, reduce the number and length of time trials -- but it made no difference. An individually great cyclist like Froome could theoretically be overcome with good tactics, but not when the team around him is so totally superior. Time and time again, he would be surrounded by two or three teammates when his competitors were more or less on their own. So much so that even when he had a bad day, or looked like he was vulnerable, nobody else had anything in the tank to take some time out of him. This was exactly what was expected beforehand and it is exactly what occurred.

The battle for the sprinter's championship was a bloody mess. Defending champ Peter Sagan got himself disqualified, very controversially, by taking out one of his competitors who happened to also be on of the most recognizable names in sprinting, Mark Cavendish. There was a stretch in years past when Cavendish was unbeatable and he was still as likely to take a stage as anyone else. In the course of a sprint in the early stages they collided resulting in an tour ending injury to Cavendish. Upon further review, the Tour Administrators disqualified Sagan, imply he was the cause of it. Replays suggest that wasn't remotely true but, like Froome, Sagan has been very dominant and has been on the short end of efforts against him in the name of competitive balance. It wouldn't surprise me if this played into the decision to DQ him, in the hopes of making the sprint championship more interesting. As it turned out, it more plain weird than dramatic. After the loss of Sagan and Cavendish, Marcel Kittle, also a great sprinter, started to dominate, but when the Tour moved into the mountains he burned himself out trying to keep up, eventually dropping out entirely. The ultimate victory went to Australian Michael Matthews. It was well earned and he had contenders to fight off until the last day, but there was the lingering feeling that with so many big names gone, circumstances played a big role in his victory.

So, yeah, it was not a Tour that I would expect to increase viewership. The TV coverage was decent this year, though the commentators still are not the best, they are getting better and are at least entertaining. They have a tendency to shy away from controversy and occasionally miss the obvious -- at one point they couldn't understand why the crowd was booing Chris Froome; it was obvious they weren't booing him, they were saying "Froooome!" Also, the scenery and setting of the French countryside is simply gorgeous. It makes me want to take a bike tour of Provence.

With Froome aging and Sky cyclists anxious to lead their own teams, the current speculation is that next year should actually be less of a foregone conclusion. I and the eight other Americans watching hope so.

Tangent: I am proud to say during the Tour I completed my first ever 100 mile bike ride, referred to in endurance cycling circles as a Century. It took a few minutes over seven hours (not including breaks). It was as grueling as it gets and it laid me up for days afterwards. The TdF riders ride over 100 miles a day for weeks at a time all at a pace roughly twice as fast as mine. It really put their skill in a new context for me. That context being a blown mind. It really is remarkable how far elite athletes are above casual athletes like me.

Thursday, July 06, 2017

The Month That Was - June 2017

So much to be done and nothing to do but wait. I have been waiting on getting my house painted for quite a while. Start date keeps getting moved back. So I haven't set up my deck, and I've been putting off some landscaping until fall. I just want it to be done. Hell, I just want it to be started. I need to remind myself that it will end up as a very small portion of my life and by the end of the year I'll barely remember it happened, unless I come back and read this.

I am pretty certain I am going to sell my car. Trade it in before it completely depreciates to nothing. I'll probably get a little SUV; something I can just throw my bike in the back of, or load up with supplies from Lowes. Ideally a hybrid now that my work commute is three times longer than previous. An open question whether to buy or lease. Back when I was keeping cars for 10 years, buying made perfect sense, but now I'm more inclined to trade in after three years so leasing might make more sense. More on this next month.

I have done no fiction writing in the last month. I keep telling myself I'll return strong after the summer is over and that might be true. I hope it's true. The current book I'm working on has been a terrible struggle, but I still do want to finish it.

[Rant] In the Future, All Stores Will be Amazon
[Movies] Flick Check: John Wick: Chapter 2
[TV] Toob Notes
[Books] Book Look: My Struggle
[Books] Book Look: The Invisibility Cloak

[Rant] In the Future, All Stores Will Be Amazon

Amazon wants to sell groceries. They have for a while. Amazon Marketplace has been up and running for years but I don't sense it's gained much traction, possibly because the prices are often atrocious. Every time I buy (non-grocery) items I get an offer for Marketplace credits if I accept something slower than two-day Prime delivery. Then there was the (ill-fated?) experiment with a checkout-free grocery store --- remember that one? Now there's the Whole Foods purchase. Why are they doing this?

The numbers must present some sort of big financial opportunity. This doesn't scan as a speculative, sci-fi style gamble like Blue Origin. This seems more from the cold, calculating side of Bezos and Co. The superficial image is of Amazon using Whole Foods as the latest attempt to enter the market, the long term plan being to remake Whole Foods into a brick and mortar form of Amazon Marketplace and competing against your Trader Joe's and your Albertson's etc.

It may appear that way outwardly, but remember Amazon's plan is world domination. The goal is that all stores will be Amazon. The core underlying asset in this crusade is their distribution network. Think of Amazon in non-grocery terms. If you are a retailer, Amazon can provide you with the most efficient distribution chain and a high end web storefront, looping you into web searches for your product, secure payment processing, and Prime shipping if you want -- all for a cut of your business. You may not like it, but if one of your competitors hooks up with Amazon they will better serve their customers, so you had better also or risk losing business.

Well, that's what this Whole Foods acquisition is about. Amazon is building (or has built) a similar distribution network for groceries. They bought Whole Foods to be their proof of concept customer, in the same way the bookstore was their first general retail customer, leading to the world we have now where thousands and thousands of retailers consist of little more than Amazon storefronts. As Whole Foods becomes more and more efficient, offers more and more forward thinking services, other grocers will be at a disadvantage. At that point Trader Joe's will say, "Gosh, Mr. Bezos, is there any way we can get in on your services?" And within a short time all grocery stores will be Amazon (at least on the back end) and Bezos and Co. will be getting a cut of every meal prepared in every kitchen in a big swath of the world.

This is why people look at Walmart as the only possible competitor to Amazon (in the U.S.). Walmart is a distribution-first company also, unfortunately they seem to be caught flat-footed by every move Bezos makes. I bet Bezos doesn't even think twice about Walmart, and is more concerned with what Jack Ma is up to.

There's a long way to go, but right now the trend is for Amazon to end up with a cut of a huge chunk of all the commerce in the U.S. and possible large and profitable portions of the rest of the world. One day, all stores will be Amazon, and the Amazon drone will be you. (Fade out to Bezos evil laughter...)

[Movies] Flick Check: John Wick: Chapter 2

The only movie of note I watched this month was John Wick: Chapter 2. It was an above average actioner that is very strong technically, but it strained to reach the epic Coolness Factor of the first one. Also, it appears they have gone full on into Universe Building which is all the rage these days as production companies struggle to set up their franchises. I note there is a companion TV series in the works. I remain impressed but slightly jaded. All this may work out well -- it almost certainly will financially -- but the sublimity of the man who headshot scores of people to avenge the killing of his dog is lost.

Relevent: If you have a meta-interest in action movies, as I do, you could do worse that explore A History of Violence, a year-by-year assessment of the most important action films.

[TV] Toob Notes

Two high-end drama seasons came to a close. What both these shows have in common is their near perfect lack of exposition, or at least it's done so seamlessly you don't even notice. So many "quality" dramas are plot driven exercises in emotional button-pushing and superficial surprise. These two aren't and stand out because if it. The only other comparable show in that sense is Halt and Catch Fire which should return later this year.

Better Call Saul -- Still remarkable, still the best show on TV, perhaps Pantheon-worthy. The multi-season development of the relationship between Jimmy and Chuck should be examined by anyone trying to make good character-based drama. We all came to loathe the antagonist, but we understood very clearly his motivations and perhaps even sympathized. Their conflict organically emerges from the facts of their lives and personalities as portrayed -- like a perfect Greek tragedy, it couldn't have played out any other way.

Chuck: "I made Mom proud, but Jimmy made her laugh." That quote is about perfect, no need to dwell on it or talk about it any further. Later, Jimmy: "Here's what's going to happen: you're going to die alone..." Yet later, Chuck: "You never mattered all that much to me..." Michael McKean and Bob Odenkirk, two guys who got their starts in TV playing farcical comedy, just nailed it.

Also, I want to be Mike Ehrmantraut for my retirement. I'm going to say it: I prefer BCS to Breaking Bad.

Fargo -- It's getting a little too cute for its own good. It's also getting a bit repetitive. Carrie Coon was a great Capable Lady Cop, the players all did their Minnesota accents and naivete excellently, the Villain Outsider was delightfully creepy, there was lots of space for philosophical interpretation among the bloodshed, but there was really nothing new here. Although there was some very Old Testament-y, Cain-and-Abel style action, it was really more Ancient Greek, wherein unknowable forces lead to arbitrary outcomes. That can work, but you either have to hit on a core human value somewhere, or the characters have to be truly compelling. They got the human value, filial jealousy, but the characters were hard to really care about, although nicely drawn and portrayed. The open-ended finale, while intriguing, was somewhat unsatisfying. It was a decent ride to get there, though. Still, it might be time to wrap this one up. You got three good seasons out of it and Noah Hawley has plenty on his plate already.

I just noticed I spotted Classical Greek fatalism in both these shows. I'm not really sure what that says about me and my tastes, but I'll it's reason for some navel-dwelling.

I also just noticed that both of these shows centered around a lifelong sibling love/hate relationship. More to consider.

[Books] Book Look: My Struggle, by Karl Ove Knausgaard

This book was (is?) a literary sensation in the author's native Norway and to some extent, throughout Europe. It is a highly detailed memoir of earlier points in Knausgaard's life and it is rather much about death. It is not fiction to the extent that any autobiography is not, so don't look for plot or action per se. It has been compared to Proust, generated numerous follow ups, and generally been as close to a cultural touchstone as a book can be any more. The splash on this side of the pond has been somewhat smaller.

We start with the author's rumination on death, segue into some childhood memories or essentially being dismissed by his rather unsympathetic and hostile father. In the next section he is a typically annoying adolescent, recounting his inane attempts at rebellion through drinking and music, and his first crush/girlfriend. Later, now a young adult, he must deal with the death of his father and the conflicting feelings it brought on. His father, who for so long was a powerful and occasionally terrifying figure -- finished the last years of his life in an alcoholic haze living in filth and squalor.

So we start and end with death prominent, in between we get pure observation. Knausgaard recounts scenes of his life in extreme detail. So much so that you must find a way to get sucked up into the detail if you are to read this book with meaning. Scenes are set with strong clarity so you can visualize enough to actually get the feeling of being there. There is an extended sequence involving the nearly slapstick efforts he and a friend go through to sneak beer into a New Year's Eve party where they are convinced they will meet girls. It is the sort of action of youth that most adults would identify with. If such narratives are to be compelling, the reader must identify and to Knausgaard's credit, most will, either in delight or pain.

In the end the summation of these scenes build a human character, or at least a realistic slice of one. The dismissive childhood, leads to the powerful desire for independence -- to deny the frustration of paternal dismissal -- then to a vow to be different towards his own children. At the end, as the remnants of the family gather we begin to see how the effects of coming-of-age never really leave us.

Should you read My Struggle? I'm kind of on the fence. It is the first of a six book series. None are short. All will be filled with very candid minutiae. Despite the probability that, in this rare instance, the slow-going over-detailing has it's rewards it's still too high a cost for me. I'd end up skipping ahead and that would defeat the entire purpose. But if you are serious about what's going on in literature, or you simply want to lose yourself in another man's life, for better or worse, you'd do well to take the plunge. In Knausgaard's keen observations you can;t help but see humanity.

[Books] Book Look: The Invisibility Cloak, by Ge Fei

I have given a good deal of thought to this book and still really have no idea what to make of it. I read it on the recommendation that it was heavily Murakami-ish and pivotal to understanding contemporary Chinese fiction. And yet I have come away not knowing what to think.

Briefly, it is about an aging slacker who makes a living building very high end audio equipment for wealthy clients. It's not much of a living and the demand is decreasing. He has a certain contempt for his customers who want his services as a status symbol more than out of love of music. There is potential symbolism in that, but I'm not sure what. The dwindling of quality and craftsmanship? The crudening of taste? The belief that one quality sound system is differentiable from another is dubious to begin with -- maybe there's some sort of message about delusion? If I read it in the original Chinese would it be clear? Would I have to understand contemporary Chinese zeitgeist to get it?

In the course of the book we find out about three women our narrator has been connected with. First, a sirenic beauty who for a brief time was his wife and who he still in thrall of to some extent. Second, a blind date set-up with a plain woman whom he summarily rejects on flimsy grounds, later admitting that he was unfair to her. Third, a hideously disfigured and damaged woman with whom he fathers a child and seems to accept as his full partner. Again, the meaning is unclear. Is it a sign of personal growth -- seeing beyond the superficiality of beauty? Is it an admission of his own ugliness and damage?

There are other similar themes. Perhaps it is vague on purpose. I can develop no certain conclusions. That said, the book has many good qualities. First, it is short. That is not a backhanded compliment. Virtually all books presume upon your time, but not this one. The narrative is direct and economical, and therefore refreshing. The characters are sharp-tongued -- which is fun. And the mere fact that I felt compelled to give it so much thought says something.

Should you read The Invisibility Cloak? I don't see why not. A dedicated read would cover it in a single day. I doubt it will bore you. It may actually pique your interest in stereo equipment. And at worst, you come away with a bit of "hmmm" to ponder. Not bad for a small investment of time.

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.