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.