Saturday, February 23, 2008

Peace In Our Time

At long last, after 12 contentious years, the IRL and Champ Car have finally agreed to unify their series. The IRL came into existence 12 years ago when the owner of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, Tony George, came to the conclusion that the premier open-wheel racing series of the day, CART, featured too many road courses and foreign drivers. Rather than a merger, the IRL has essentially swallowed Champ Car, only keeping a few of the old Champ Car venues, including the one jewel in the crown, the Long Beach Grand Prix in April.

The split in the open wheel racing world all but killed off open wheel racing in North America, as NASCAR rushed in to fill the void, even taking with it open wheel stars from the IRL, Champ Car and Formula One in recent years. CART, and USAC before it, was once the unquestioned pinnacle of racing of any kind in this country. A.J. Foyt, Rick Mears, Mario Andretti, all the Unsers, Parnelli Jones, Bobby Rahal ... the list of drivers whose fame arose from open wheel racing is long and rich. While it will be far better for auto racing fans (and sponsors) to have only one major series to follow, the damage caused by Tony George's hissy fit will take at least as long to repair as the division in the racing world itself lasted.

Thursday, February 21, 2008

Book Corner

Although I consider myself a big reader, I have not found time for much more than magazines and online content since I got out of school, with novels or other books reserved for vacations. Due to my unusual living circumstances of the last six months, however (away from family during the week, less accessible TV, many airplane flights), I have resumed reading books with a vengeance. In fact, it is possible that I have never ready books as vigorously as I have recently. In view of the Professor's call for a book list, I provide below a brief commentary on some of the 33 books I have read over the last 25 weeks.

Get a cup of coffee; this is a long post.

I have bought some of the books I have read, but my sister-in-law (and current weekday landlord) belongs to a book club, so I have been the primary beneficiary of her participation in the club. It may just be the way of recent fiction, the proportion of female authors and/or female-centric stories in my sister-in-law's collection seems to be very high. Perhaps the facts that the club is based in San Francisco and, I think, involves mostly women have influenced the reading list. In any event, I have had the opportunity to sample a wide array of stories and storytelling talent.

By far the best book I have read is "In the Fall" by Jeffrey Lent. Lent is described as a successor to the stylistic traditions of Faulkner and Cormac McCarthy. He certainly writes in a dense, oblique style that brings those writers to mind. Run-on sentences and a vast vocabulary do not necessarily a superior author make, but Lent has the storytelling talent to go with the sophisticated technique. "In the Fall" is an epic tale expertly told. It is one of those books that so vividly conjures up its world that it allows me to forget that I am reading a book. I was so taken with "In the Fall" that I bought Lent's two other books, "Lost Nation" and "A Peculiar Grace." The latter, though still strong, was the most shallow of the three, the one that I could envision being made into a movie even as I read it. "Lost Nation" took a long time to hook me, but its brutal brilliance was something unique and powerful.

Speaking of McCarthy, I read "No Country for Old Men" before seeing the movie. Both are excellent, and if the movie is inscrutable, it is because it hews faithfully to the book. The book did not affect me as deeply as "The Road," but it an interesting and usually fast-paced book (for McCarthy, anyway).

"Songs in Ordinary Time," by Mary McGarry Morris, is a difficult book to recommend, even though it is ultimately rewarding to read for the sheer challenge of staying with it. I was tempted to put this book away many times over the course of reading it. It is well-written in that it creates a fully realized world, but it is inhabited almost entirely by unlikeable characters. Even the "good" people fail in ways that strip away the reader's sympathies. But Oprah said to read it, so what do I know.

"The Rule of Four," by Ian Caldwell and Dustin Thomason, was an interesting puzzle book in the manner of "The DaVinci Code," but its tone was that of a competent but not particularly gifted grad student. Actually, this is almost precisely what it was. The authors of the book, childhood friends, wrote it just after they graduated from their Ivy League schools. The book has little in the way of authorial craftsmanship, and amounts to a gauzy-focused love letter to Princeton. That's not to say that I didn't enjoy the yarn, though. "The Piano Tuner," by Daniel Mason, is another book that suffers from being the first effort of a recent college graduate. It is an interesting tale that, in places, is written with style, but the book ultimately is less fulfilling than the promise of its beginning.

Ironically, and unbeknownst to me when I started it, the core of the puzzle in "The Rule of Four" is also at the center of "The Birth of Venus," by Sarah Dunant, a much more elegantly crafted work. Both of these books concern Renaissance Florence and the actions of the Dominican priest Girolamo Savonarola, who introduced the world to the Bonfire of the Vanities.

"Body and Soul" by Frank Conroy is a book that I felt should have been just a bit better. It is another book that brings a period and its inhabitants to life, but somehow it lacked the dramatic tension that would have made it great. Much of the developments in the story were simply too easy. It is as good a portrayal of the inner workings of a musician as you will find anywhere, however. "The Time Traveler's Wife," by Audrey Niffenegger, suffers the same fate. It has a very interesting premise, of a man unstuck in time who returns again and again to the same woman as she grows up in a normal chronological manner. Although the book is enjoyable to read, I felt that this one, too, should have gone to another level in the last third. Interestingly, both of these authors are university professors. Perhaps as a direct result, both books are competently written, but seem to lack that essential spark of genius that differentiates the truly gifted from the merely talented.

I read a couple of Nick Hornby books ("High Fidelity," "About a Boy"), which are always a reliably enjoyable read. I cleansed my palate with conventional Stephen King thrillers, whom I have always liked, as well as a Michael Crichton book ("State of Fear") that was interesting but somewhat less fulfilling.

I have read some non-fiction as well, my usual non-magazine standby. The estate of Alistair Cooke recently released a collection of previously unpublished essays from a trip around America he took in the early part of World War II. "The American Home Front: 1941-1942" is a time capsule of American attitudes and habits that is fascinating for its lack of the filters and revisionist interpretations that are usually attached to what would now be considered a work of historical investigation. John Krakauer's "Into the Wild" is another of his reliably well-written man-versus-nature stories, about a tragically self-absorbed (although some would describe him as merely an idealist) recent college graduate, whose impressive improvisational survival skills ultimately cannot hold nature at bay. "The Devil in the White City," by Erik Larson, was a very interesting account of the Chicago World's Fair of 1893, which captures much that characterized the beginning of the modern era in America.

These, and two dozen others, have made for very enriching evenings. Since we also read "To Kill a Mockingbird" with Kelly last fall, and are currently working our way through Jane Austen's "Persuasion," I am getting my fill of both current and past literature.

There has not been much scholarly reading among my selections, in contrast to the Professor, but as an English major, I find that connecting with literature is perfectly acceptable. It is also enlightening to get a feel for what novelists who aspire to create literature are doing with their talent. In contrast to what the collegiate world was telling us when we were in school, modern literature does not begin and end with Toni Morrison after all.

Come to Buffalo for the Wings, Stay for the Hospital Care

The fine upstate New York city of Buffalo has a national profile that is unusually prominent for a town of less than 300,000 people. Buffalo, like many cities in the Rust Belt, has witnessed a steady population decline over the last 40 years as steel production and manufacturing work dried up. Buffalo is somewhat notorious for its brutal winters, brought about by its proximity to Lake Erie and Lake Ontario. Of course, where would dinner parties be without Buffalo Wings? In the sporting world, Buffalo is the lovable loser. Four straight appearances in the Super Bowl by the Buffalo Bills, and four straight losses, have secured Buffalo's place in the American sporting world hall of shame for all time Let's not forget that everyone's favorite non-guilty-but-legally-liable defendant, O.J. Simpson, hit his greatest heights while wearing a Bills uniform.

Lately, however, Buffalo, and more specifically its doctors, have given the sports world two of its best medical stories. Last fall, Buffalo doctors acted swiftly and decisively, using relatively untested techniques, to save Bills player Kevin Everett from almost certain paralysis. The emergency care Everett received in the first hours after the on-field hit that rendered him unable to move his limbs is widely credited with Everett's remarkable recovery.

Buffalo doctors are now being given their due credit for saving the life of hockey player Richard Zednik, whose carotid artery was accidentally severed by the skate of one of his teammates. In a lurid but courageous effort, Zednik managed to skate back to his bench, his neck spewing blood all the way. Zednik credits the doctors who treated him in Buffalo with saving his life.

Life-threatening injuries are not too common in sports, but if you have to have one, Buffalo seems to be a place that will give you a pretty good shot at recovery.

Friday, February 15, 2008

Google Street View

Google has an interesting feature called "Street View" that it has been rolling out in selected communities around the country. Using pictures captured with 360-cameras mounted on the top of cars, Google makes it possible to now not only view a map in standard and satellite formats, but also see exactly what the area looks like from the street.

Say hello to my office building:

View Larger Map

Feel free to walk around my neighborhood. It's definitely safer to do it this way.

Here's my old building:

View Larger Map

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

The Ultimate "Oops"

The next time you stumble over the rug in the dining room, sending a glass of milk to its sudden demise, just take comfort in the fact that you're not David Garrett. The 26 year old virtuoso concert violinist recently tripped and fell down a flight of stairs, landing on his violin. That is unfortunate enough, but the magnitude of the accident is increased immeasurably because the violin was, inevitably, a nearly priceless Stradivarius.

"Don't worry, kid, we'll just get another one," doesn't quite apply here.

Wednesday, February 06, 2008

This Is Not a Good Sign

If you know someone who demonstrates poor attention to detail and exercises poor judgment, do you put much stock in that person's decisions or opinions? Probably not.

So, I fear for our Republic.

In yesterday's election, California had a ballot proposition that dealt with the allocation of funds nominally dedicated to transportation needs. The proposition sought to put into place safeguards against the state using those funds for other purposes. However, in the overlap in time between the introduction of the proposition and the finalization of the ballot, the state enacted legislation that made the proposition moot. Hence, in the "arguments for" section of the voter pamphlet, the people who came up with the proposition in the first place instructed the voters of California to vote "no" on their own proposition.

We joked in the office at lunch yesterday about how many people would mistakenly vote for the unnecessary proposition anyway. We set the over/under line at 25%. We were way off.

The percentage of voting Californians who approved the proposition that was rejcted by its own backers? 42%.

When 42% of the voters ignore a direct instruction from the authors of a ballot initiative to reject their own proposition, what can that mean for propositions that actually have some meaning and consequence? It is not possible to dumb down the process more than the authors of Proposition 91 did yesterday, and 42% of voters still blew it.

All this tells me is that in order to get a ballot measure to succeed, you do not need to win 50% of the vote. You only need 8%, because the moronic illiterates fine people of the state of California will spot you the first 42%.

Tuesday, February 05, 2008

The iPhone Improves

I love the idea of the iPhone, but the original model seemed better in theory or potential than in actual execution. I've played with it, and I love the interface, but for my purposes, it fell short in several critical ways.

Now, in its usual style, Apple is paying out the upgrade line on the iPhone inch by inch. The original iPhone team loaded with Google maps, but had no GPS capability. Apple recently introduced a workaround solution in which the device locates itself by triangulating off of cell phone towers rather than satellites. As long as the user saves close to urban areas, this should be enough to turn the iPhone into a useful guidance device.

Another odd compromise inherent in the original iPhone was the relative lack of storage space. In an era in which Apple produces 80 GB iPods, and is promoting the sale of movies over iTunes for viewing on iPods and high phones, the idea that the iPhone could get by with 4 GB or 8 GB is laughable. In a half step in the right direction, Apple has now introduced a 16 GB iPhone. This would now be enough to hold my entire music collection, although it would not leave much left over for video content. With judicious editing of my iTunes library, however (do I really need a compendium of Star Wars themes with me at all times?), we 16 GB storage would be adequate for just about any purpose I can imagine. If I had one now, it would be perfect for my frequent airline trips, which allow for about 40 minutes of the use of electronic devices.

One remaining limitation is Apple's reliance on an older, slower Internet protocol. Once Apple upgrades the iPhone to 3G technology, all of my basic objections will have been answered. There will always be other technological wishes that the fanboys will have (stereo Bluetooth, cut and paste), but for my purposes, the iPhone is very close to being the one-stop, fully functional 21st-century personal assistant/entertainment device that I want it to be.

Now, if Apple would just do something about the high price.

No, that's one thing I know will never change.

It's Showtime!

At long last, after months of after-school rehearsals, the curtain goes up on Kelly's school's production of Oliver Twist this week. Kelly has a speaking role and a solo. I'll have to miss opening night, unfortunately, but I'll be there for the second performance on Thursday. Break a leg!

[The girl in the picture in the linked article is one of Kelly's best friends, who, as it turns out, has a beautiful singing voice.]