Thursday, February 09, 2017

The Month That Was - January 2017

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

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

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

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

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

A quick summary of the journey that spanned four books.

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

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

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

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

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

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

[Rant] Looking Ahead

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

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

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

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

[Rant] More Depression

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

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

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

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

[Music, Tech] Solving Music

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The world continues to get more complicated.