Monday, May 29, 2017

Whatever it's Called, it Worries Me

The world of the Grand Theft Auto series is populated with memorable...vehicles. Banshees and Bobcats, Sentinels and Schafters, Intruders and Inernus (Inferni?)--there are literally hundreds of cars, motorcycles, trucks, helicopters, boats and bicycles to steal in the course of the game, and these vehicles have more personality than the random citizens walking the streets of Liberty City. Car spawning, i.e., where these cars appeared, seemed to be rather random, though some models were more frequently found in certain neighborhoods. One thing I noticed when playing Grand Theft Auto III many years ago, however, was that certain cars would seem to be very rare when you were looking for one, but once you found one and started driving it, they'd be everywhere.

Some have suggested this is a glitch, but I've noticed it in every GTA game I've played, and I suspect it's just the game developers and designers having a bit of fun with us. Years ago, a friend of mine acquired what was then his dream car (and, indeed, this was a dream car for a lot of young men at the time): a Camaro Z-28. He loved that car. Once he got it, though, he had an unerring ability to see (and a somewhat annoying habit of pointing out) Z 28s everywhere. "There's a nice Z," he'd say, while we were on our way to a hockey game, or the mall, or a friend's house. And he had a great ability of finding parking spaces--you guessed it--right next to other Zs.

Psychologists have a name for this (of course, they do); I'm just not entirely sure if it's Baader-Meinhof Phenomenon, frequency illusion, selective perception, or some variation of confirmation bias, but it seems to be rooted in our tendency to look for patterns, which in itself is probably rooted in some ancient survival mechansm from the days when we were swinging in the trees or seeking shelter in caves.

I'm thinking of all of this because of the recent shenanigans of Greg Gianforte, who won a special election in Montana last week for the state's only seat in the U.S. House of Representatives. A few days before the election, Gianforte apparently body-slammed a reporter who had the nerve to ask Gianforte a question about Trumpcare. This follows on the heels of reporter Dan Heyman's arrest on May 9 for trying to ask questions of Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price and Presidential Advisor Kellyanne Conway, and the forcible ejection of reporter John Donnelly from an FCC meeting on May 18. And, on May 2, a reporter in Alaska was allegedly slapped by a state senator.

There is no question that the tone has been set by our president. Whether it's calling into question the truth of everything reported (unless it comes from Fox, Breitbart, or Alex Jones), or using dangerous phrases like "enemy of the people," or suggesting to then-FBI Director Comey that he should arrest reporters for publishing leaked information, Trump has been waging war against the mainstream media for at least as long as he's been a candidate, and we're starting to see the results of that war.

Or are we? Maybe this is really just coincidence, or Baader-Meinhof, frequency illusion, selective perception, or hyper-sensitivity to what is potentially a serious problem, I really don't know. What I do know is that Gainforte's victory, combined with House Speaker Paul Ryan's weaksauce disapproval of Gianforte's behavior, and the continued rhetoric and behavior out of Washington concerning the press should set the alarm bells ringing. On this Memorial Day, it would do well for us to remember that the sacrifices made by so many over the last 241 years could be lost if we're not careful, and one of the first things to go would be the free press.

Monday, May 22, 2017

Semi-coherent Thoughts on Reading and Time

For the better part of the last four days, I've been thinking about time, and books, and reading. Last Thursday over at Writer Unboxed, Ray Rhamey posted the first page New York Times bestseller The Handmaid's Tale in his "Flog A Pro" column. If you're not familiar with it, in "Flog A Pro," Rhamey posts the first page of a current bestseller (minus title/author) and asks his readers, "Would you turn the page and keep reading?" There's a little doodad for voting and viewing the vote tallies, and Rhamey continues by identifying the book/author, and analyzing the opening, explaining his own answer. It's an interesting exercise, well worth the time, in my opinion.

Though it has been several years since I read The Handmaid's Tale, I knew by the second line that that's what I was reading. Apparently, Margaret Atwood's opening stuck with me over the years, and I voted 'Yes' to the question, "Would you turn the page?" and I commented as well my belief that the opening page was outstanding. At the time I voted, the overwhelming majority (though in an admittedly small sample size) was also voting the same way. Both commenters before me were similarly impressed.

Later in the day, I went back to see what others were saying, and found the tide had turned: the no's outvoted the pro's (at last look, it was 78-70 in favor of nay). And while those who bothered to comment still mostly extolled the virtue of Atwood's first page, several of them noted the book might have a hard time getting published or gaining traction today (The Handmaid's Tale was originally published in 1986 in the US), while a couple stated plainly that they did not like it.

And I'm fine with that, really. The fact is, not everything is going to please everyone, and Atwood's style is much more literary than the novels Rhamey usually features. But there was one comment that especially stuck with me (and it wasn't the one that dismissed the opening as "pretentious twaddle". Okay, maybe that one stuck with me, too). The one that has really stuck with me said, "Books 30 years ago could take their time and if I was on vacation maybe I would have continued but today? No time."

No time.

At this point, I can see a friend of mine raising his eyebrow, looking at me over the top of his glasses, and saying something like, "Last time I looked, we all have the same time. Twenty-four hours, right?" And it's true. We all have the same amount of time in a day, the same amount of time in a week. The only difference amongst us, ultimately, is how much time we have on this earth. That's the big unknown.

But what I find myself wondering, more and more, is what's so much more precious about our time now than thirty years ago? A lot of people read The Handmaid's Tale back when it first came out--enough to make it a bestseller, enough to get it printed in many countries, enough to help Atwood win or get nominated for a number of prizes, enough for it to get turned into a major movie in 1990. (For an intersting perspective on what the success of this book did/meant to Atwood, see this article). So, why did so many people have so much time in 1986, and why do we have so little of it to this day? As far as I know, we still have twenty-four hours in the day, right?

According to the website Reading Length (, and just know before you go my antivirus flagged it as 'suspicious,' though it seems perfectly fine), The Handmaid's Tale is 311 pages long, 96,000 words, and will take 6 hours, 25 minutes to read from end to end. Wow. In comparison, Cross the Line, the latest in James Patterson's Alex Cross series, is a whopping 400 pages, 124,000 words, and will take 8 hours, 16 minutes to read. In other words, the latest Patterson potboiler will keep you from reading more books than Atwood's. Which one don't you have time for?

Of course, the "no time" comment doesn't mean the person literally doesn't have time to read Atwood--we've all got the same amount of time in a day, right?--it could mean (probably means, in fact) this person just doesn't enjoy this style of book (and, despite my use of statistics, it probably does take longer to read a 300 page Atwood than a 400 page Patterson) And that's okay. Again, not all things appeal to all people, and quite honestly, I suspect most of the readership of Writer Unboxed leans away from literary fiction. But using time as an excuse rings a little hollow. We're already making a commitment of time by picking up a book. What difference does it really make if this book takes eight hours versus that one's six? If a person is an avid reader (and someone who is reading Writer Unboxed probably is), they're just going to open up another book once they close this one for the last time. Reading doesn't come down to not having time: it comes down to how you choose to spend the time.

Does it matter to you how long it takes to read a book? Do you feel an urge to burn through books fast, or are you okay with taking your time?

Monday, May 15, 2017

Weekend Update: Old Friend Edition

Waking up once again exhausted and unprepared for Monday. It's been that kind of a spring, and the weather hasn't helped much, with a lot of rain and colder temperatures than normal. Our little corner of upstate is normally a couple of weeks behind the weather I was used to growing up on Long Island, so the "lion" typically makes it's entrance around the second week of the month (which, this year, was when the big lake in our county finally froze all the way over for the first time, followed by three feet of snow); likewise, the April showers and May flowers are similarly late. This year, however, the April showers seem to have been saved for this past weekend.

The weekend started for me on Friday afternoon/evening, where we were, fortunately,  blessed with good weather, for the dedication of a boat wash station. What's a boat wash station, you ask? Exactly what it sounds like. It allows boaters to use a high pressure, hot water spray to clean off their boats before launching into a water body, and to clean off their boats before leaving one lake for another. The purpose is to help prevent the spread of aquatic invasive species. My organization worked with another non-profit and a local government to get funding for the construction of this boat wash, so I got to make remarks on behalf of my organization. We had about forty people on hand, which was not surprising. The man the boat wash was named after was just one of those people, the kind who left people smiling, the one who devoted himself to making his community a better place. My comments focused on the fact that, though I didn't know this man well, he always treated me like an old friend. It was a nice event, and a very fitting tribute to a good man.

On Saturday I wore a different hat at another event. This time, I was wearing my 'member of the Audubon Society' hat (and, perhaps more important, my 'spouse of an Audubon Society co-president' hat) at a bird festival event at a state park. This was the first bird festival for this park, and the weather was not at all cooperative, with rain throughout the day no doubt holding down attendance. The good thing is the parks people had put up several tents a few days in advance of the event, so it was relatively dry beneath (though the ground was quite wet; chairs would sink an inch or two into the soft ground when you sat on them). Not a whole lot of people came out, but the people who did were enthusiastic and very nice. And, I got to see an old friend:

Yes, that's Morty the turkey vulture. For those of you who don't know, my wife and I ran an environmental education business for a number of years; 'Morty' was (is) a permanently-injured bird we had in our care and used for programs. When we ceased operation, we transferred him and several other birds to a group in the region. I'm happy to say that Morty is this man's star attraction, and he very kindly let me hold him for a few minutes. Did Morty remember me? Hard to say. He didn't bite me, and he didn't puke on me, even though my bird handling skills aren't what they used to be. It was a nice visit, and good to see Morty doing so well and in good hands.

On Sunday, we watched Prometheus, which was a sort of prequel to Alien. I was not impressed. I think they tried to pack a lot of meaning into the story, but characters were poorly developed and behaved in ways that didn't make a lot of sense, the dialogue was terrible, and everything felt kind of rushed. Ah, well.

That's it for me for this week. How was your weekend?

Monday, May 8, 2017

Stanley Cup Favorites--Or Not

The National Hockey League playoffs are rolling along, more than halfway through round two. As I write this, eight teams have already been eliminated in the first round, one has been taken out of the second round, and another could be knocked out by ten thirty this evening. As always, the playoffs has provided drama, thrills and controversy in equal measure, heroes and goats, and further proof that no one really seems to know what goaltender interference is. 

My own Bruins went down in the first round, losing to Ottawa in six games, which means I can actually enjoy watching the games for a change (playoff hockey is probably the most excruciatingly exhilarating thing in the sports world. It's only when you don't have a dog in the fight that you can truly appreciate the game as a game.). Still, it's always more interesting when you're rooting for someone; I just need to figure out who. With that in mind, I'll list out the remaining teams, and some pros and cons of rooting for them. Maybe by the time I'm done, I'll know who to root for.

Anaheim Ducks

Pros: Well, uh, there's…hmm. Can I come back to this?

Cons: Ryan Kesler. Ryan Getzlaf. Corey Perry. The fact that the team, originally owned by Disney, was actually named after a movie franchise. Coach Randy Carlyle reminds me an awful lot of Dean Wormer. Maybe that's a pro?

Pros, part deux: Honestly, I still got nothing. As far as I can tell, the Ducks have no redeeming qualities at all. That was easy!

Edmonton Oilers

Pros: A Canadian team hasn't won the Stanley Cup since 1993. They practically invented the game, for God's sakes. Let 'em have one.

Cons: They switched to those awful orange jerseys. That's unforgivable. Sportscasters on Hockey Night in Canada insist on calling Ryan Nugent-Hopkins 'RNH.'

Nashville Predators

Pros: A Cup victory for P.K. Subban will give the management of the Montreal Canadiens an ulcer the size of Tycho. As a Bruins fan, anything that does that is fine by me (and I like Subban, now that he's not on Montreal anymore).

Cons: With 46 games played for the Predators, it's possible that Mike Ribeiro gets his name on the Cup.

New York Rangers

Throw it into Mount Doom, Master Mats!
Pros: A win means they can finally stop talking about Mark Messier and 1994. They were my Dad's favorite team, and I have a lot of friends and family who would be really happy if they won. Mats Zuccarello would be the first hobbit to get his name engraved on the Stanley Cup. 

Cons: New Yorkers are insufferable when their teams win championships. A deep playoff run means having to look at an ever-increasing number of bandwagon celebrities in the Madison Square Garden crowd.

Ottawa Senators

Pros: See Oilers, Edmonton. Also, the original Ottawa Senators won 11 Stanley Cups in the NHL's early days before moving to St. Louis and folding in 1935. As such, the Senators, who rejoined the NHL in 1992, would be the first "Zombie Team" to win the Cup. That'd be kind of cool. And we'd get two more rounds of Coach Guy Boucher doing stuff like this:

Cons: The Senators have a bunch of sneaky-dirty guys who are jerks. And not just because they eliminated the Bruins. Since the NHL is a league of copycats, a Senators Cup win might set the NHL back about 20 years, as everyone decides to employ a boring system with a bunch of marginally-talented players. We'd have two more rounds of Guy Boucher, and frankly, Guy Boucher scares the bejeebus out of me:

Pittsburgh Penguins

Pros: There hasn't been a back-to-back Cup champion since Detroit in 97 and 98; it's time we had one. A second consecutive Cup for Phil Kessel would be a giant "FU" to the Boston media who savaged him when he left the Bruins and might earn him some of the respect he deserves.

Cons: A third championship for Sidney Crosby would make listening to NBC coverage of the Penguins even more insufferable than it is now--and it's pretty insufferable.

Washington Capitals

Pros: A win for the Caps might just shut up some of the unfair criticism directed at Alex Ovechkin, who has only scored more goals by a long shot than anyone else since he entered the league. It would also mean Justin Williams is still perfect in his career in game 7s. They have a guy named Beagle--who doesn't like a beagle?

Cons: I still hate Braden Holtby for almost single-handedly knocking out the Bruins in 2012. Tom Wilson is a dangerous player who needs to stop leaping into hits. I'm not real happy with anything from Washington these days.

The verdict
Well, that was very helpful. As expected, writing all this out has helped me figure this out. So, who do I want to win the Stanley Cup now that the Bruins are out? Well, um...err...Bruins in 2018!

Can you root for anyone when your favorite team is out of the playoffs? How do you decide?