Monday, January 20, 2014

All Aboot My Trip to Canada

I recently visited our kinder, gentler selves in Canada for work and pleasure and noted a few things: (a) they talk funny, (b) Americans--and we also feel totally comfortable hogging the continental appellation--feel totally comfortable pointing that out to them, (c) they never get mad at it, which must be a particular flavor of unamusing, constant, and blatant violation of the guest/host relationship, (d) like Californians, Canadians tend to end a preponderance of their sentences in the interrogative tone, which is a tough speech tic not to imitate when it permeates your world, and (d) sometimes you can misinterpret them unexpectedly.

To wit: I was in Edmonton and trying to get from my hotel to a nearby museum. I asked the Concierge for directions. Here, roughly, was our exchange:

  Me: Hey. (Flagrantly giving myself away as a Yank.)
  Concierge: Good evening? May I help you?
  Me: Yes. I am trying to get to the Art Gallery of Alberta.
  C: Oh, sure. That's close, eh?
  Me: Great.
  C: Gettin' there's a very simple prough-cess?
  Me: Nice; what do I do.
  C: Go straight oout the door and take 100 Street?
  Me: Okay.
  C: Take 100th Street up a few blocks to 102, eh?
  Me: Okay? (Giving into the cadence)
  C: Turn right, go down two blocks? You'll see it just there?
  Me: Thanks?
  C: Glad to help? Have a great time. (Meaning it.)

So, I went out the door (on principle, I refused to cave in and go oout the door). I walked up 100th Street and took a right on 102nd Avenue. I walked down two blocks and did not see anything resembling a museum. Confused, I retraced my steps to 100 Street. I finally decided to go one block further on 100 and I came to 102-A Avenue, which, as promised, led two blocks down to the museum and its yummy restaurant, Zinc, which was my destination.

Can you believe it? He said, "102-A" and not "102, eh?" And, thinking it over, I am convinced that there was no way to have anticipated it.

PS - Crazy story, eh? Oh, and of all the great Canadian musical contributions, nothing tops Celine Dion. Just kidding! Of course I would never cruelly hurt you by steering you toward Celine like that. One legitimate contender, however, is Cowboy Junkies, who put out a gorgeous cover of the Velvet Underground classic, "Sweet Jane" penned by recently deceased Lou Reed; now playing on iTunes.

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Do It: Read "Kill the Password"

A while back, my main email account was hacked. After some deliberation, I had given my new email address to a friend whose Internet hygiene is questionable and, sure enough, within 24 hours I was receiving notes from friends that I was spamming them.

My first reaction was panic. What if the hackers locked me out of my own account? What if they stole my credit card numbers? What if they posted my miserable self-recorded guitar playing on the Web?! My next reaction was to act immediately to change my password and read up on security. Then, sheepishly, I began to change my password everywhere I had an account. Why? Because I was using the same password every. place. I. went.

I know. Bad form. But I am more secure today. Thanks in large part to a recent article in Wired magazine, which, while painting a doomsday scenario for the future of online safety, does offer some very helpful security tips.

To wit, few of the author's "Dos": 

"Enable two-factor authentication when offered. When you log in from a strange location, a system like this will send you a text message with a code to confirm. Yes, that can be cracked, but it’s better than nothing. 

Give bogus answers to security questions. Think of them as a secondary password. Just keep your answers memorable. My first car? Why, it was a “Camper Van Beethoven Freaking Rules.” 

Scrub your online presence. One of the easiest ways to hack into an account is through your email and billing address information. Sites like Spokeo and WhitePages.com offer opt-out mechanisms to get your information removed from their databases. 

Use a unique, secure email address for password recoveries. If a hacker knows where your password reset goes, that’s a line of attack. So create a special account you never use for communications. And make sure to choose a username that isn’t tied to your name—like m****n@wired.com—so it can’t be easily guessed."

So, do it: read "Kill the Password." It's great.

PS - The last of the "do's" has been the real eye-opener for me. Oh, and it is completely safe to bend an ear to "Devastation" by The Besnard Lakes; now playing on iTunes.

Saturday, September 14, 2013

Excellent Quotes: The Hardy Boys

Friend, are you like me? Do you like action, mystery, and cliff-hanging suspense? Then you, too, will want to read The Hardy Boys Mystery Stories, Registered Trademark. Yes, youngster, you'll enjoy the thrilling adventures of America's favorite detective duo, Frank and Joe Hardy. Their keen insight, cheeky but never inappropriate disregard for adult supervision, and touching camaraderie with their swell friends help bring the criminal element to justice and will thrill you, making you eager to read more of their serial exploits, all in hard cover.

Indeed, if you can ignore the dated, casual ethnic stereotyping, leveled vocabulary, and the fact that there was no actual author named Franklin W. Dixon, you can--as I do--feel nostalgic about this classic casebook series. You can even re-read one as an adult, which I recently did.

The entrepreneurial offspring of Bayport's well-known detective Fenton Hardy, the Hardy Boys--always introduced as brown-haired and level-headed Frank and younger, blonde, impetuous Joe--were a staple growing up in my house. Their best pal Chet Morton always had a sweet tooth, a new hobby that proved remarkably helpful to the case at hand, and a vivacious sister, who provided a love interest for Joe. Their "favorite dates" Callie Shaw, a giggly blonde who sees Frank, and the aforementioned Iola Morton, a brunette who goes with Joe, added romantic interest, forming cleverly mismatched hair color couples.

The books were full of this sort of thing:

     "While Frank and Joe stared in utter amazement, the huge clock and the wall section behind it began sliding to one side.

     "'Why,' Frank gave an inward gasp, 'it's a door, hidden by the clock attached to it!'"

     -- While the Clock Ticked. Dixon, Franklin W. New York (NY): Grosset & Dunlap, 1962. Pp. 134-35.

I never confused it with literature, but I must admit to reading a ton of them as a kid and to collecting a few of the 66 titles for myself. Go back and read a story; it's fun, but you'll probably need only the one. And recommend matching wits with the Hardy Boys to an age-appropriate kid in your life.

PS - No need to buy all of them. You can just fire up the old jalopy and check them out from the Bayport Public Library. Oh, and "Sunrise" by Yeasayer is a thrilling adventure in an of itself; now playing on iTunes.

Monday, September 9, 2013

Caneel Bay

I recently went to the US Virgin Islands for a brief vacation. I was a Virgin Islands virgin, so I wanted my first trip to be special (and I wanted them to respect me afterward). I chose to go to Caneel Bay on St John. I chose right.

In a fit of noblesse oblige, Laurance Rockefeller--who was enraptured by the island--bought up much of St. John through an environmental protection intermediary, gave it to the US government to create the Virgin Islands National Park, and built a low-profile but sprawling hotel for the 1% on several of its many charming bays. As a result, your Caribbean vacation can consist of lolling around in a paradise well-stocked with sunshine, gorgeous water, charming flora and fauna, and hikes in the park rather than gambling, smoking, and sitting cheek to jowl with casual drunks in the swim-up bar at a chain high-rise hotel adjacent to a nominal "beach." Thank you, Laurence.

The Rockefellers are like that. Yes, they have sometimes been problematic misogynist monopolist prudes who crushed their competitors with Social Darwinist furor. But they protect land with vision and missionary zeal. And I like my overlords like that ... and I love that for $31/hour today someone like me can bask in the Caribbean's glory before global warming makes translucent seas and coral reefs a relic of the Holocene.

It is truly delightful.

PS - Go there immediately...or, uh, once the hurricane season ends (Caneel closes for September and October). You can thank me, and Laurance, later. Oh, and "Pelican" by The Maccabees is also delightful; now playing on iTunes.

Sunday, September 1, 2013

Excellent Quotes: Game of Thrones

When he is not obsessing over medieval culinary delicacies and the finer points of battle dress, media sensation George RR Martin is busy crushing it story-telling-wise.

Hearing about the popularity of his Song of Ice and Fire fantasy series, I got a copy of the first book for my girlfriend. She promptly inhaled the five-part-to-date series and is impatiently awaiting the next installment. I decided to give it a shot since she liked it so much and have been amazed at the way Martin invents and fully inhabits his fictional land of Westeros, home to seven squabbling kingdoms. Nearly every one of the inter-bred ruling family members and their minions is interesting (chapters are serially told from the perspective of one character at a time), there is enough hot and cold running backstory to pay homage to Frank Herbert, and the author has conjured up a killer app for his series: The Wall.

The Wall is made of solid ice 700 feet high, 100 leagues long--that's 300 miles to those of us not living in the British Isles--and so thick that it houses tunnels and prisons and The Seven know what else inside it. The Wall is all that stands between the "civilized" residents of the South and a northern territory known as Beyond the Wall or, more chillingly, as "The Land of Always Winter."

Somewhat disappointingly, The Wall is not really an allegory about the small-mindedness of Rep. Duncan Hunter or the bizarreness of modern US/Mexico relations. It more than makes up for it, however, by being awesomely about keeping The Others out of the South. The Others are a terrifying race of gaunt ice beings whose eyes shine blue and who silently slaughter you and your pals as they remorselessly converge on you regardless of your defenses. Oh, and, after they kill you, your undead corpse--complete with colorless skin offset by black, blood-engorged hands--rises to kill anyone you knew before. Brr.

Take a gander; here, Sam, one of The Wall's guardians, summarizes what the history books in Westeros say about the shivvery beings beyond The Wall:

 "The Others come when it is cold, most of the tales agree. Or else it gets cold when they come. Sometimes they appear during snowstorms and melt away when the skies clear. They hide from the light of the sun and emerge by night ... or else night falls when they emerge. Some stories speak of them riding the corpses of dead animals. Bears, direwolves, mammoths, horses, it makes no matter, so long as the beast is dead. The one that killed Small Paul was riding a dead horse, so that part's plainly true. Some accounts speak of giant ice spiders too. I don't know what those are. Men who fall in battle against the Others must be burned, or else the dead will rise again as their thralls."

-- A Dance with Dragons. Martin, George R.R. New York (NY): Bantam Books, 2011. Pp. 179-180 (of 1705 in the e-version).

Martin seamlessly weaves together something the reader has seen--Small Paul's nightmarish death at the hands of a corpse-riding ice horror--with a totally believable "history" from the past of his fabricated world. Combined with an unerring ear for an authentic-sounding kind of Middle Ages lingo--"it makes no matter" and "plainly true"--the plot sucks you into a fully-conceived universe that you are happy to inhabit for thousands of pages.

PS -- I must admit that I skipped the fourth book, which has nearly universally been reviewed as a slog whose only real purpose it to set up book five. I am quite a slow reader so I WikiCheated instead and read the plot online, skipping from book three to the present. Oh, but "Northern White Clouds" by Supermule is no slog; now playing on iTunes.

Sunday, November 18, 2012

Excellent Quotes: The Affair

Lee Child (nee Jim Grant) is already a best-selling author of thrillers; he is about to become quite le celebrite when the Tom Cruise vehicle, "Jack Reacher," is released this December.

Reacher novels all follow a bullet-proof formula: Jack--a code-of-honor drifter who got BRACed from the Army's military police and has since gone off the grid--drifts into town. His engagement in the plot begins uneventfully. He picks up a job or hitches a ride or buys a cup of his beloved coffee. This immediately entangles him in a massive and highly-secretive plot to do very bad things, conducted by bad men, that the Law cannot or will not address. Jack laconically investigates. He meets and beds a local woman. Events come to a head. Inevitably, Jack brutally kills the perpetrators (sometimes he kills a symbolic representative of the evil-doers, sometimes he kills their leader, sometimes he kills a phone book full of baddies.)

As a character, Reacher has some endearing quirks: He does not do laundry; instead, he simply throws his old clothes away when he buys a new set. He owns just a toothbrush. He always knows what time it is without consulting a watch or clock. He has a Sherlockian photographic memory for all sorts of neat facts that prove useful in solving crimes, such as the rate of deadfall due to gravity, the population of most major cities, the percentage of cheese in the moon, and so forth. He doesn't really care much about anything. But--like all good noir heroes--he secretly does care about some things and he'll do anything to get to the truth.

As an author, Child, too, is  endearing. He has a delightful way of over-specifying the mundane and under-selling the big stuff. He brings a LOT of detail into the narrative, but avoids the Clancyesque (THIS Jack will never reach into the darkened room and expertly and precisely flip the light switch of the Leviton MDI06-1LI 600W, 120 Volt AC 60Hz, Single-Pole light switch mounted exactly 3 meters above the Woodgrain Millwork WG 1866 9/16 in. x 5-1/4 in. x 96 in. Medium Density Fiberboard Base Moulding that abuts the carpet).

Violent, yes. Formulaic, true. Still, I love me some Reacher novels. Here's a taste for those of you who have not yet met the quietly menacing protagonist in the black and white. Jack is on an emerging date with Sheriff Elizabeth Deveraux, the local lady he will bed:

"The clock in my head hit ten in the evening. The pies arrived, and so did the coffee. I didn't pay much attention to either. I spent most of my time looking at the third button on Deveraux's shirt. I had noticed it before. It was the first one that was done up. Therefore it was the first one that would need to be undone. It was a tiny mother-of-pearl thing, silvery gray. Right behind it was skin, neither pale nor dark, and very three dimensional. Left to right it curved toward me, then away from me, then toward me again. It was rising and falling as she breathed."

- The Affair. Child, Lee. New York (NY): Delacorte, 2011. Pp. 199-200.

Read the series. I recommend either starting at the start, with Killing Floor, or at the helpful review of Jack's life to date, with Bad Luck and Trouble.

PS - One of Jack Reacher's key attributes is that he is six-foot-five (Reach-er, get it?). In the movie he will be portrayed by Tom Cruise, who's playing height is five-foot-seven. Enjoy the ensuing fanboy controversy. Oh, and "Sticky Chemical" by Bobby Bare is another endearing thing; now playing on iTunes.

Sunday, April 22, 2012

Funny Thing: Muzak

As any reader of this blog knows, I am fairly dedicated to music. I am learning how to play the guitar (for 15 years now), am a recovering mid-life crisis band member, and I provide a song recommendation with each entry in the “PS” section of the post.

I also have a good-sized CD collection. Not so large that I can start my own rebel Internet radio station anchored off the New York skyline. But large enough that it can be reasonably blamed as a major contributor to the fact that I continue to rent an apartment rather than own my own home.

I have been having a devil of a time migrating my collection out of my ‘90s-style entertainment unit--which hulks in a corner of my living room intimidating the bric-a-brac and the smaller furniture--and into my iMac. Sometimes, I sort of want to follow one well-heeled pal’s lead and just pack it all up in boxes and send it to a company that loads it onto a drive for you at a fixed price per CD...but then the Scotsman in me goes nuts and says, “Hey, English fancypants, you canna load them yourself, you valueless yuppie?!”

But the prospect of logging serious time at the computer swapping hundreds and hundreds of disks in and out is daunting. It is a mirage of discipline that fades as I walk across the desert of dinner dates and movies and work. What to do?

Well, I’ll tell you, dear reader. I determined to load one CD onto iTunes each day when I get home from work. Not more. Not less. Just a few minutes every day. In a few years I’ll have all my music in there and each day my iTunes reservoir groweth rewardingly.

This has, surprisingly, been working exceedingly well. I just refresh a small stack of CDs on my desk and pop one in nightly when I get home from the grindstone factory. I am up to 5.1 days of music already (you gotta love the Apple measurement systems).

But I did recently have one moment of panic that reminded me that I am not a digital native; that, like Larry, Curly, and Moe, I am perpetually waiting at the nun’s orphanage for digital parents to adopt me, getting older and more eccentric with each passing software release (woo woo woo).

As I got into the groove of slugging a new CD into the collection each day I inserted one that was both a DVD of music videos and a CD of songs all on one platter (damn you, broken-up R.E.M. and your tech savvy). As only Apple can, when it came time to eject the disc, my iMac wanted to know which format I wanted to eject: one, the other, or both. I panicked. I began pressing buttons at random. The pretty, rainbow wheel of “loading” began to spin perpetually like a digital Tibetan prayer wheel in the center of my screen. My system began to Escher itself into a Mobius strip of indecision. Nothing worked. Nothing responded. I was screwed.

I looked desperately for an override. I examined with minute attention to detail the body of the computer, looking for a pinhole into which I could insert a paperclip to eject the disc as in days of old. I swore. I begged Steve Job’s ghost for insight. I promised to put an Apple bumper sticker on my car. Nothing worked.

After some serious sweating, I recalled that I had a brand new, shiny, optical drived, envy-inducing iPad. Ha! Salvation. I sat by my recursive iMac and used the iPad to Google how to force a disc out of a Mac. It was so meta.

And here is what it the sum total of mankind’s knowledge, stored on the Cloud and delivered at the speed of light from a self-repairing global network of servers told me: push the eject button on your keypad. Push “|>”

Doh!

PS -- Seriously? I overlooked the eject button?! Sigh. Oh, one song you should load into your collection is "The Heartbreak Rides" by  A.C. Newman; now playing on iTunes.