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.