The Mercedes SL55 AMG – Best Car Ever?

If I told you that you could buy a 200+ mph supercar for less than the price of a new Camry, would you believe me? Well, it’s possible.

TL;DR: I bought a 2003 Mercedes SL55 AMG and it is the most amazing car I’ve ever owned. Capable of 208 mph yet still affordable, it represents the pinnacle of performance, luxury and value.

Probably the most iconic Mercedes ever made was the first generation SL, specifically the 300SL “Gullwing”, although there is a 300SL and a 190SL roadster that are also in high demand. Since then there have been six generations of Super-Leicht (Super Light) SL models, and the one I want to talk about is the fifth generation, the R230, introduced in 2002.

The first car I ever bought with my own money was a 1978 MGB convertible. I put tens of thousands of miles on that car and ever since I’ve loved top-down driving. I used to ride motorcycles but the necessity to wear a helmet and other gear kind of offsets the freedom of being on a bike, so to me the safest open air experience one can have is in a convertible.

However, my lovely bride doesn’t really care for convertibles, and most convertibles look like crap with the top up (I pretty much have a rule that the top is down unless it is raining). Enter the hard top convertible. A number of car manufacturers offer the option to own a convertible, but instead of the a soft top you get a retractable hard top. Thus when the top is up it looks like a normal coupe, complete with the extra quiet you get with a hard top and a glass rear window. I figured if I could find a model I liked then it would still look okay with the top up and also satisfy my discerning partner.

SL55 with the hardtop up

During the COVID-19 quarantine, a friend introduced me to a website called Bring a Trailer (BaT). It is my understanding that this website started out as a blog detailing interesting cars for sale and eventually morphed into its own auction site. They usually have around 300 or so cars for sale each week, sold in an auction format.

It has provided me with hours of entertainment. They have an anti-sniping feature where any bid within the last two minutes of the auction results in the auction being extended for two more minutes, and I have seen auctions go on for over an hour past their scheduled end time as bidders keep increasing their offers. There is also a well run comments section. I’ve learned a tremendous amount about various cars from the knowledgeable community that follow these auctions, and I also like the fact that for a few minutes after you post you can edit your comment for typos, etc.

In order to comment and bid you must set up an account backed with a credit card. BaT charges a 5% buyers premium on the sale price of the car (up to a price of $100,000 for a maximum commission of $5000) which gets charged to your credit card, and winning bidders then work out payment directly with the sellers.

[Unfortunately, BaT made the decision to sell a piece of the Porsche 550 that killed James Dean, and since then I have soured on the site. Although they made $5000 on the deal, it still struck me as being in very poor taste. I have since closed my account, but I may one day rejoin as I haven’t really found a better site]

I’ve owned a large number of cars, and while I have fond memories of most of them (my Nissan Leaf POS notwithstanding) I’ve always been a fan of Mercedes. I owned a number of sedans, including a 1970 250, a 1972 220 and a euro-spec 1968 280SE that I wish I’d never sold. My most recent Mercedes was a 2004 C230 Sport that some friends sold to me and they liked it so much that I sold it back to them when I got another car. When I would take the C230 to the dealer I always lusted after the AMG cars in the showroom, and being exposed to BaT rekindled my love for the marque.

While I still love the old sedans, a bad car accident in July of 2019 has made me very safety conscious. Due to the accident my left ankle is busted, which rules out manual transmission cars, and I doubt I’ll be on a motorcycle again in my lifetime. So I started looking for a more modern Mercedes that was safe but also featured a hard top convertible.

Enter the Mercedes R230. Produced from 2002 through 2012, this was the first SL to sport a retractable hard top. There were three main phases in the R230 production: 2002-2006, 2006-2008, and 2008-2012. I was really drawn to the first two because they featured the same round headlights that were on my C230, and I have a slight preference for them over the more rectangular lenses introduced in later models.

In learning about the model I came across the sixth episode of the first season of Top Gear, where it turns out that presenter Jeremy Clarkson owned one of the first year SL55 AMG models and they did a rather great review of the car. He had sold a Ferrari F355 in order to buy the car, which was probably a bad decision based on current values, but I loved how he summarized the SL:

The Ferrari is like a stiletto: sleek, accurate, deadly.

This, on the other hand, is more like a hammer. Big, a bit clumsy, but it’ll still kill you. Actually, not a hammer. It’s more like a Swiss Army Knife. It’s a top-down funster, a long distance cruiser, a muscle car, a Messerschmidt ME109, a pose-mobile, and if your horse gets a stone in its shoe, it can deal with that, too.

It’s definitely worth checking out if you can find the episode on the streaming platform of your choice, especially for the surprise ending (it’s the last segment in the show).

I decided I wanted an SL55, and I started looking for one to buy. The 2002-2008 model years used the M113 V8 engine coupled with a supercharger, and enthusiasts often list the M113 as one of the best engines Mercedes ever made. The M113K came from the factory at just under 500 bhp, and I’ve seen some tuned to produce more than 700 bhp. Even though SL stands for “Super Light”, the SL55 weighs in at 4400 pounds, and also comes with a crash actuated roll bar and multiple airbags, including a knee bag for the driver. These safety features appealed to me, post accident.

When I told Andrea about BaT she asked “how do you know you are getting a good car?” Well, the answer is, you don’t. Unless you happen to live near the person selling the car, you are likely to be buying it sight unseen and with no warranty. To offset this, most auctions come with a huge number of photos (usually over 100 and often twice that or more) and videos. Sellers will post the results of a Carfax report so you can see if there have been any accidents, and the better sellers will include service records as well as being available to quickly respond to questions in the comments section. Also, BaT draws in marque enthusiasts who will weigh in (for better or worse) and point out things the average person might have missed. Plus, some sellers develop good reputations through multiple auctions.

Once I decided that I wanted an SL, I set a budget and started watching the auctions. Outside of looking for a good car based on its history, there were a few other things I wanted. I’ve been told that 50% of the Mercedes cars that are sold are black, and 45% are silver. I didn’t want a black car. Don’t get me wrong, black cars are beautiful but having owned a black car in the past I just remember how hard it was to keep clean. I’ve always liked silver on a Mercedes, but I also think the SL looks wonderful in other colors as well, although those always demand a premium at auction.

Just like green is associated with British cars and red with Italian, silver is the German racing color (it used to be white, although the story about how silver came about is apparently a myth). My C230 was silver, so when looking at SLs I figured I’d end up with a silver one considering my budget.

The next thing I was looking for was adaptive cruise control. I have a 2015 Toyota Highlander that was the first car I ever drove with adaptive cruise control, and I simply love it. It makes traveling so much less stressful. I was surprised to find out that a number of high end manufactures, like Mercedes and Jaguar, offered adaptive cruise as an option in the early 2000s. It wasn’t cheap – the Mercedes version, “Distronic” cruise control, cost $3000.

It was my friend Nick who called my attention to the auction I ended up winning. The car was a 2003 SL55 with 18,000 miles on it. It had a clean Carfax and two previous owners, with the initial buyer owning it for most of its life. He was a doctor who split his time between New Jersey and Florida, and he had ordered the car with every available option as well as taken delivery in Germany. While 2003 was the first year the car was available in the US, and I’m a bit skittish about buying cars early in their lifecycle, it was the second year for the fifth generation overall so I assumed most of the serious kinks had been worked out. With a sticker price of over $128K (or over $183K in 2020 dollars) it seemed like a deal if I could get it within my budget.

The sticker didn’t include the Kleemann modifications that had also been done to the car. Kleemann is a Danish company that provides aftermarket performance upgrades for Mercedes, and this one included high performance air filters, a smaller supercharger pulley (to increase boost) as well as an ECU and TCU remap to increase the brake horsepower by up to 20% (pushing the car well over 500bhp). The remap also removed the 155mph speed limitation imposed from the factory, and Mercedes has reported a top speed for this car of 208 mph. That added several thousand dollars to its value.

When the auction got close to ending, I made sure to shut down all other applications on my computer (and on my network) to make sure there would be no issues bidding (my Internet connection is provided by CenturyStink DSL). As I mentioned before, if a bid is made in the last two minutes of the auction, the timer will reset to two minutes, thus no one can “snipe” an auction. I always go into auctions with a strong idea of my upper limit, and so my bidding method was simple: bid the minimum bid increment (which at this level is around $250) unless someone else jumped, and then I would bid their jump. Stop when you hit the limit or you win. There were three of us bidding on this car, but at the end I won with a bid of $30,500 (and I can tell you that those last 30 seconds seem like forever).

So, yay, I won. What next? BaT takes their cut right off your credit card, but you pay the seller directly. They offer a pretty good list of steps to take, so I followed them to the letter. I had the seller send me a bill of sale and a copy of the title (just to make sure they did have the title in hand). Then I wired the money for payment, plus an extra $25 because I wanted them to overnight the title to me so I could get a plate from the North Carolina DMV as soon as possible. The next step was to arrange for shipping.

It looks like BaT has its own shipping system now, but back when I bought my car the company they partnered with couldn’t get around to it for a couple of weeks, so I ended up using Montway. I bought the car on a Tuesday, it was picked up in New York on Friday, and I got it Saturday afternoon via enclosed trailer.

It was lightly raining the day I got the car, so I really couldn’t try it out at the time. It came with everything promised, and the only disappointment was that the driver’s side mirror needed to be replaced. Mercedes often come with self-dimming mirrors and over time they degrade. The mirror on this SL was very dark, although it didn’t show that way in the pictures on the auction site. Luckily it is easy to replace and not that expensive (around $250).

The next day was beautiful and sunny, and I decided to take a long drive through the country. The top lowers in about 16 seconds, and I was on my way. It had been so long since I was in a convertible, and never one this nice, and there were literal tears of happiness coming out of my eyes.

The car is amazing. Insanely quick, with an exhaust note that is so musical you really don’t need the stereo, although that is pretty amazing as well. As my Italian friends say “La machina es la musica”. For a 4400 pound car it is incredibly responsive, and even at speed I don’t detect any oversteer or understeer. Although you can find yourself doing 120mph (yes, with the top down) it is very enjoyable at 60mph as well.

One thing I enjoy is the Active Body Control (ABC) feature. This complex system operates the suspension at all four corners independently, which provides for an extremely smooth ride. I also live on a gravel road, and ABC has a setting where you can raise the whole car up an inch, which is also useful when going over speed bumps. Mercedes produced a cool ad that kind of demonstrates how it works.

A possible downside to the car is the electronic braking system (SBC). No one I know likes it, and it is known to have problems as well. But Mercedes being Mercedes, they have warrantied the system for 25 years, so I have some time left. To me the brakes work well, but they aren’t exceptional.

Speaking of problems, while I have heard horror stories about SL maintenance, almost all of those involve the 12 cylinder version. The M113 V8 seems to be rock solid. If you are looking to buy any used car, especially something like an R230, it really does pay to look for one with service records as these cars, when well serviced, are very reliable. One thing I love about AMG cars is that the engine is assembled by a single craftsperson (not on an assembly line) and each engine comes with a plaque with that person’s name on it. Mine was built by Sabato de Luca.

AMG Builder's Signature for Sabato de Luca

I did have the car checked out head to toe. Everything came back fine, although they suggested (and performed) a flush the ABC system. I am very anal-retentive about my vehicles and one thing that bothered me was the Tele-Aid system. Similar to offerings from other manufacturers, this is supposed to connect you (for a fee) to someone using the mobile network for roadside assistance, but this car was so old that it used analog cellular which no longer exists. I do believe there may be an upgrade path, but as it was something I wasn’t interested in having I asked the mechanic to disable it (as it was throwing a malfunction alarm).

The only other expense I’ve had, except gasoline, was cosmetic. While the rims were in good shape, there were some scuffs so I had them refinished. I also had the brake calipers painted yellow (it was between that and red). While I love the silver color on the car, I wanted just a little bit of flair. With the color and the air intakes on the sides, it reminds me of a shark, so that’s what I named it – The Shark.

SL55 with the hardtop down

Another thing I like about this car is the luxury. The other convertibles I’ve owned, an MGB and an Alfa Romeo Spider, were fun but no one would describe them as luxurious. For Mercedes the “SL” is in the same class as the top of the line “S”. For example, the SL has seat memory – three positions. Big deal, right? That is common in today’s cars. But what about on the passenger side? Seriously, the passenger seat gets as many options as the driver, including a massage function and memory.

The interior is leather, wood and Alcantara. For the exterior you get headlamp washers and a soft-close trunk. Plus you get the safety of a heavy car coupled with a roll bar that will automatically deploy in the case of an accident, and front and side airbags. The driver also gets a knee air bag.

To take the luxury even farther, the US version of the 2003 SL55 had nine options – all of which were equipped on the car I bought.

SL55 Options

  • Bi-Xenon Headlights: The standard SL already came with Xenon headlights, so what the heck is “Bi-Xenon”? In the normal Xenon configuration, a Xenon bulb is used for the low beams and a halogen bulb is used for the high beams. With the Bi-Xenon option, over the Xenon bulb there is a shutter that directs the light in different directions depending on whether low beam or high beam is selected. Rather than move this shutter for “flashing” the headlights, there is an auxiliary halogen bulb that is used for that (Xenon bulbs don’t like to be switched off and on frequently). Since both bulbs come on with high beams I really don’t see much of a difference, but it was a $900 option.
  • Panorama Roof: While I almost never drive the car with the top up, occasionally I have to (like that one time I got caught in an unexpected rain storm). One cool option to help preserve that open air feel is a glass roof, similar to what you would find in a Tesla Model 3. I can’t say I’ve used it much but, unlike a Model 3, there is a retractable sun shade should you desire to block out more light. $1800 option.
  • AMG Multispoke Wheels: This is probably the most controversial design choice for the car: the Black Forest Alps Rally wheels. A $1200 option, most people commenting on the looks of the SL55 are split over them. I haven’t met anyone, myself include, who loves them (there is a wheel from later models that I really like) but they have grown on me. Some people hate them outright. Once I got mine polished up I think they look great with the painted calipers.
  • Distronic: I don’t know if it is a language thing, but I am not fond of some of the names Mercedes gives to various options. Since they are “electronic” someone obviously thought it would be cool to add “tronic” to the end of everything. Distronic is the adaptive cruise control feature, and it is hard to find since it was a $2950 option back in 2003 and even people who could afford these cars new balked at the price. I’m even surprised it was available back then, and its novelty shows. I use adaptive cruise control all of the time when I can, and I found that the Distronic will often cut out with the error “External Fault! Reactivate”. It really confused me until a local mechanic explained that the error is just Distronic’s way of telling you something is weird and it would rather turn off than cause an accident. I usually see this on two lane roads when a large truck or something similar is coming the other way, but sometimes it turns off for less obvious reasons. It’s a little annoying and I plan to have it checked out during my next service, but on multi-lane highways (where the feature is most useful) it tends to work fine.
  • Parktronic: Yet another “tronic” this feature is more commonly called “park assist” or something like that. Sensors in the front and rear of the car will alert when they detect the car is getting close to other objects, such as another car or the wall of a garage. Fairly common on cars now, it was relatively new back in 2003 at a cost of $1035. It works well, but sometimes too well. I have an issue where the left side alert will go on full blast for no apparently reason (usually after the car has been driven for awhile and you stop at a light). My mechanic says that can be addressed and it is another thing on the list for my next service.
  • Keyless-Go: Another unfortunately named feature, this enables keyless entry and push-button start common on modern cars. A $1015 option in 2003, this requires that you carry a little credit card-sized device which will unlock the doors with a touch and start the car by pressing a button on the gear selector. Outside of adaptive cruise control, this is one of my favorite convenience features, but the card is a little annoying. If there is a problem with the card, say a low battery, the doors won’t open. Later versions of Keyless-Go were built into the main key, and I’ve been told this is something that can be retrofitted to older cars, but since anything key related with Mercedes must run through the dealer, and my local dealer is clueless, I’m probably stuck with it. But so far it has worked well so fingers crossed.
  • Keyless Go Card

  • Tire Pressure Monitoring System: Like the name says, the TPMS reports the current tire pressure using wireless sensors at each wheel. For some reason when I got the car, the feature had been disabled. I had it re-enabled but noticed that the measurements are a little high. Note that this appears to have nothing to do with the standard low pressure warning, since on one cold winter morning I got a separate alert telling me to inflate the tires. The cheapest option at $630.
  • SL55 Tire Pressure Display

  • Ventilated Seats: Most people like the feel of leather but it can get a bit sticky in the heat of summer. Enter in ventilated seats. This feature (yours for an extra $1200) uses fans to blow air through the seats to keep you cooler. I have this on my Highlander and use it a lot, so it is nice to have on the SL, especially since I tend to always drive with the top down.
  • Digital Portable Phone: 2003 was a time before Bluetooth was common, so Mercedes offered the option of getting a mobile phone that integrated with your car. At $1995 it wasn’t inexpensive, but the idea was you could carry a phone with you when out of the car and plug it into a cradle, and use the built in integration, when driving. The phone I got, a Mercedes branded Motorola V60, still powers on, but will not work with any modern wireless network. Luckily, when Bluetooth did become available a few years later, Mercedes created an adapter that plugs into the cradle and allows you to pair up to two phones. It works well, and even works with digital assistants like Siri. The Bluetooth protocol implemented, however, does not do music so don’t expect to listen to your favorite tunes using this feature. For that I bought a little adapter that plugs into the auxiliary audio jack in the glove box.

In the Canadian market the SL could have a heated steering wheel as well, but otherwise this car was loaded.

As you might have noticed from my features description, the main issues I’ve experienced with the car involve the electronics. I really don’t mind, though, because I have a soft spot for older electronics and I love the fact that these things work without a connection to the Internet. Around 2000 is when cars really started to become integrated with computers, and in modern cars those computers are constantly talking to some third party over the wireless network. I don’t really like that. It is one of the reasons I don’t own a Tesla, but even Toyota and other manufacturers are jumping on the bandwagon of having cars always “phone home”.

One extreme example of the technological age of this car is the navigation system. It is based on compact disks, this was before even DVDs, and thus to cover the United States I need a small wallet full of CDs. The resolution is pretty minimal, especially compared to modern maps.

SL55 Map vs. Apple Maps

But I face the same problem with the Navigation system on my Highlander. Trying to get an update to that map is both a challenge and expensive. It was out of date the moment I bought the car, which is why I (and most people) rely on our phones for map guidance. It was a lot cheaper to buy a phone holder that mounts in the CD slot and just use it for trips than to worry about the built in system, but I still sometimes turn it on so I can watch my car travel through great empty sections of the map.

All of these electronics require more electricity than normal, so the SL comes with a second battery for the auxiliary systems in the trunk. If the car sits for awhile that battery will drain a bit, and thus you won’t be able to operate things the hardtop or the heated/ventilated seats until you run the engine for a minute or two. To prevent this I bought a CTEK Battery Tender. It’s mounted in the trunk and if I know I’m not going to be using the car, I’ll plug it in so it’s ready to go when I am.

The only downside to the SL55 is the fuel economy. While the built in calculator often reports my trips to town running about 13mpg, the actual numbers are much better, with an average of 15mpg and more like 18mpg on the few long trips I’ve taken. That isn’t much worse than the Highlander, but I still wish it were better.

SL55 Display Showing Trip Mileage

Overall, this has been my favorite car, and it is an utter joy to drive. I work from home and some days I just have to hop in, drop the top and take a spin through some twisty country roads to improve my mood. Through my informal observations of prices on websites like BaT and others, I think the R230 depreciation has hit bottom. People are finding out what deals these cars can be and are willing to pay for them.

If you are in the market for an R230, the first thing to decide is if you want the extra horsepower of an AMG version or if you are more into the creature comforts. The SL500 comes with a seven-speed transmission, versus a five-speed for the AMG, and that can make for a smoother driving experience.

I really, really, really love the M113 V8 engine, and unless you are confident in your ability to maintain a car (either by yourself or through a qualified local mechanic) I would stick with R230s with that engine. This limits you to the 2002-2006 model years for the SL500 and 2003-2008 for the SL55. The later models will get you more refined features, such as Distronic Plus, but they also cost more. For many the sweet spot is the 2007-2008 SL55, but I’m pretty happy with my launch edition 2003.

Another issue that will affect price is the color. For the 2003 models there were 14 different color options. Funny enough, three of them were various shades of black and four of them were shades of silver. Non-black, non-silver cars draw a premium (the most expensive R230 I saw on BaT was red on red and went for $66K), and some of the other colors are stunning. But also note that you can get a full wrap for around $4500. So if you don’t mind that the inside of your engine bay will be a different color than the outside, you can change the exterior to any color you like. Originally clear and designed for paint protection, wraps can both protect the paint and let you express your individuality. Also, while not easy, they can be carefully removed and the car returned to its original configuration.

As always with any used car, take the time to find one that has obviously been cared for and comes with a clean Carfax and service records. If you are on BaT look at the seller’s other auctions and at the feedback (just click on the seller’s name). Some sellers spend a lot of time and care bringing cars to auction and it is reflected in the comments, whereas others buy cars wholesale, just change the oil, and you can’t be as sure about the quality. The car I bought was the first auction by my seller, and overall I’m pretty happy with the experience.

The last new car I drove was a leased Nissan Leaf and it was the worst car experience I’ve ever had. By comparison the purchase of this SL55 was a walk in the park, and it just goes to demonstrate that real deals can be had in the used car market if you do your research. If you have ever wanted to own a classic Mercedes, Porsche, Aston Martin, Bentley, whatever, there has never been more options at your fingertips. My purchase has provided more smiles per mile than anything else I’ve ever driven, much less owned.

While electric cars are obviously the future, for both average transportation and sports cars, I still have a fondness for the internal combustion engine. I like the fact that there are explosions happening inches away from my feet. I love the roar of the engine as you engage the throttle – it’s almost like there is an angry, fire breathing dragon under the hood – and I am the Dragon Master! (grin)

Review: The Apple Credit Card

I recently got the Apple Card credit card. I no longer have it.

TL;DR; I signed up for the Apple Card because a number of articles implied that you could generate “single use” or virtual account numbers with it. This isn’t the case. Because I had some issues getting even deeper into the Apple ecosystem, and the fact that the card is somewhat “meh”, I thought about cancelling it. When I ran into an issue getting my physical card, that pushed me over the edge and I did get rid it.

For years I’ve used the Citi American Airlines Executive Card. With the exception of last year when a bad car accident put me out of commission for most of the year, and this year due to COVID-19, I spend a lot of time in American planes. The Executive Card is expensive, $450/year, but it includes a membership to the Admiral’s Club lounges, which cost $650/year and includes Admiral’s Club access for anyone else on your card, for another $650 in savings. Plus you get a lot of good benefits if you are an American frequent flyer.

One other feature I used a lot was the ability to make “virtual” account numbers. Almost anything I bought on-line was done using these somewhat single-use numbers. You could set limits on the amount that could be charged on the card as well as an expiration date up to one year in the future. It was awesome and gave me a lot of piece of mind. It didn’t matter if the card number was somehow stolen as it wasn’t very useful with those limits in place.

Recently I was told my Citi card, which still had several years left before it expired, would be replaced with a new card (and number) that implemented “contact-less” payments. I already used Apple Pay on my Apple Watch for contact-less, but, cool.

Unfortunately when they did that, they removed the option to use virtual numbers. I cared enough about it to spend a lot of time in the queue of the Citi help desk, and I nice man named Ben informed me that, yes, that feature was being removed. (sigh)

Not cool, Citi.

I started searching around and I found some references that the new, fancy, Apple Card supported virtual numbers, so I ordered one.

Virtual Account Numbers Headline

First, I removed the credit freeze I placed at the three main credit reporting agencies. I strongly recommend that everyone does this. Yes, if you want new credit it is a pain to go a temporarily lift the freeze, but it is the easiest way to prevent unauthorized use of your credit.

Second, I completed the application process through the Wallet app on my iPhone. Easy peasy. Soon I had a new card in my Wallet and a new payment option for Apple Pay on my watch. I also requested a physical card (apparently made of titanium) for those purchases that require a card with a chip.

Pretty painless, and it was the first time I had ever applied for a credit card where I could use it almost immediately. The credit limit was somewhat low, about a third of what I have on my other cards, but I don’t carry a balance on my cards since I’m lucky enough to have better options for credit when I need it. Thus the lower limit wasn’t really a problem.

The main criteria I use for shopping for credit cards is the benefits you get in addition to the ability to by things on credit. The Apple Card charges no fees for having the card, and you get back 1% on all purchases, 2% on all Apple Pay purchases, and 3% on certain Apple and Apple affiliated products bought with Apple Pay. This money is available within 24 hours on another “card” in your Wallet called “Apple Cash”.

Compare this to the Citi card where you get an airline mile for every dollar spent, and two miles for certain purchases. For many, getting cash back is a better deal.

The way I look at it is different. If I want to fly from my home to Australia, business class, that costs 80,000 miles each way, or 160,000 miles total. If I got that entirely off the credit card I would have to spend $160,000. If I spent the same on the Apple Card, I would get $1600 to $3200 in cash back.

But in the past I’ve seen a business class ticket to Australia run anywhere from $8000 to $16,000. I just checked and even now a ticket for June in business class is $4500. If you can earn enough miles and like to travel overseas it is really hard to beat the benefit you get from miles. Plus you can earn them outside of using your card. Sometimes it is even better to buy an economy class ticket and use miles to upgrade. Heh, there is even a bank that pays interest in American Airlines miles instead of cash.

In addition to the other benefits you get with an airline card, the financial benefits can be very compelling if you travel. If you don’t, the immediate cash back from the Apple Card seems comparable to other cards with the exception that you get it almost immediately versus, say, once a month.

Anyway, I was willing to give up all the benefits of the Citi card and switch to the Apple Card just to get virtual account numbers back. Unfortunately, they don’t exist on the Apple Card.

I believe people are confusing a feature of the Apple Card that lets you reset your card number in case of fraud with these one-time use numbers. If you suspect that your card number has been compromised, you can generate a new number, but I believe that makes the old number immediately invalid. It’s not the same thing.

At this point I’ve owned the card for a couple of days and I’m on the fence about keeping it. Of course it integrates well with the iPhone and you get notifications for each purchase, but it is also limited to just one user (Andrea and I tend to share a single credit card account but you can’t add additional users to the Apple Card). What caused me to cancel it had to do with the delivery of the physical “titanium” card.

One thing Apple promotes with its Card is security. There is a number tied to your Apple Wallet that you have to go through several steps to reveal, although for online purchases made using the Safari web browser that number can be auto-filled. If you use Apple Pay on your Watch the number associated with that process is different that the one on your phone, and the physical card doesn’t even display a number at all (and the number encoded on the chip is yet a different number). I was eagerly awaiting the delivery of my card via UPS, but it never showed up.

I live on a rural farm ten miles from the nearest gas station. My property is fenced and gated (not from any bourgeois sensibilities but to keep our dogs on the property) and I rarely see or hear the delivery trucks when they come by. Instead we have a large plastic box where they can put things out of the rain, and once we get notified that things have been delivered we go and fetch them from the box.

This delivery was met with a note that said someone over the age of 21 had to be present to sign for the card.

UPS Apple Card Delivery Notice

What?

Think about it. Even if we weren’t social distancing in the face of a global pandemic, why the need for the extra security? You could literally throw these cards along the side of the road and they would be useless to the majority of people who found them since they lack any easy to read number, and since you have to have your iPhone in hand to activate the card even if they could guess things about the account they wouldn’t be able to active it without the device. All of my other credit cards come by US Mail, with the exception being a lost or stolen card which is usually replaced via two-day delivery but even then a signature isn’t required. Heck, I didn’t even have the option to sign the little note the UPS guy left so he could avoid having to interact with me to get a signature.

I believe that Apple did this to make the Apple Card seem extra special, but it was totally unnecessary and caused me inconvenience. I know this will seem petty to most Apple fans reading this, but since I was already on the fence about the card in the first place, this pushed me over the edge to cancel it.

The cancellation process was pretty unique as well. You have to cancel the card via text message. Seriously.

Cancelling My Apple Card

Before I started the process I made sure to pay off my outstanding balance. I was able to use the $5 or so I’d earned in cash back first, and then I paid off the rest by entering in my banking details.

In summary, if you need a credit card, don’t need a large line of credit, and you have an iPhone, the Apple Card is worth checking out. If, however, you travel a lot and like to take long trips overseas, an airline card is probably a better bet. Please check out The Wirecutter for their recommendations as well, including the Apple Card.

Oh, what about those virtual account numbers? I found a service called Privacy that kinda, sorta does what I want. They allow you to create cards that are either one use or tied to a particular merchant, but you link it to your debit card. The reason is obvious, they make money by acting as a credit card processor and they can’t do that if they also have to get paid via credit card, but I’ve always been hesitant to set up debit card payments because they are harder to deal with in case of fraud (the money is already gone from your account versus having to send in a credit card payment). The free version also has some limitations but until Citi gets their act together and brings back my beloved virtual account feature, it will have to do.

Review: Always Look on the Bright Side of Life by Eric Idle

TL;DR; If you like the humour of Monty Python, you’ll really enjoy this book. If, however, you are looking for a book about Monty Python, you’ll be disappointed. This is Eric Idle’s story, which wouldn’t be complete without Monty Python, but it is also much more than that. I came across this book by accident and what a happy accident it was.

The story of this book and my relationship with it would be incomplete without “the tweet”.

Eric Idle Calls Me a Cunt

Yes, Eric Idle called me a cunt.

I’m still not quite sure why. I mean, I am merrily reading along and he’s talking about his retreat in Provence. By this point in the book his fame has caused his orbit to cross paths with pretty much everyone who was anyone at the time, and he’s managed to make friends with a lot of famous people. He’s writing about his eccentric neighbor with a wheelbarrow that uses a ball instead of a wheel (ballbarrow?) who turns out to be James Dyson.

Of course he is.

So, as part mental exercise and part futile effort to show my friends how clever I am, I decide to guess a famous person one wouldn’t usually associate with Monty Python that Idle will inevitably meet. I chose Stephen Hawking (who, by the way, shows up on page 238).

I didn’t think much of it and went to bed, and when I woke up I saw his reply. In a way it was kind of funny. I imagine Idle at his home in LA, feeling a little lazy after having eaten dinner, pulling out his phone and taking offense, but that sneaky autocomplete jumped in and turned “cunt” to “count”.

Idle is English, so technically one would be an Earl and not a count, but for some reason the wife of an Earl is still a Countess, go figure. I decided to have some fun with it, so for the next 31 days I will be known as “Count Balog”, complete with the Eastern European pastiche accent (à la the character on Sesame Street). My tweets autodelete when they are 31 days old so this too shall pass.

I came across this book entirely by accident. Where I live in North Carolina we have seen an obscene amount of rain this year, nearly double the average, including two hurricanes. Hurricane Florence damaged the Biography section of the Wren Memorial Library in Siler City, and they asked for help replacing the damaged books through an Amazon wishlist. Near the top of that list was this book.

Now Siler City has seen better times, and it is best known for being the final home of Frances Bavier, Aunt Bee from The Andy Griffith Show (after she died Andrea was involved in rescuing the cats she left behind, but that’s another story). It is also home to a bunch of hard working people who have been duped into voting against their own self interest. I found it a moral imperative to replace this book, even though I had not read it, because I knew the viewpoints expressed would be counter to, say, Fox News. I bought it and sent out a tweet, and Eric Idle was kind enough to comment on it (without elevating me to royalty) and I believe that caused a few more people to contribute. I am grateful for that.

About a month later I found myself at Flyleaf Books, which is my favorite local independent bookstore, when I saw a copy of Always Look on the Bright Side of Life. I bought it and put it in the queue of things to read.

Now I have been a Python fan since the late seventies. I can’t remember who introduced me to their work, but I believe it started when the DM for the Dungeons and Dragons group I was in started talking in a Pepperpot voice as one of his characters (yes, I liked Monty Python and D&D in the South. Oh how the young ladies flocked to me). We devoured all things Python and Python adjacent. When cable television arrived I recorded The Rutles onto VHS and wore the tape out. We made cassette copies of all the albums, having to struggle a bit with the second side of Matching Tie and Handkerchief to get both sides recorded. In high school, when my friend David and I were cutting up in social studies class, the teacher Jackye Meadows called us on it so we immediately launched into singing “Sit on My Face”. She didn’t know what to think of it, but being very cool she let us slide.

Well, enough foreplay, let’s talk about the book.

Always Look on the Bright Side of Life Book

Billed as a “sortabiography” the book begins and ends with a song, namely “Always Look on the Bright Side of Life” which was the closing tune of The Life of Brian. I can remember seeing the movie in the theatre, and the song gave me an earworm for weeks. Monty Python was known for not finishing things. Skits would abruptly end, and even Monty Python and the Holy Grail just ends with everyone getting arrested. It was surprising to actually have some sort of ending to a Python movie, and a rather good one at that. This song is the thread that holds the book together.

There are several arcs within this book. Like any autobiography it starts when the author is young and, in this case, comes pretty close to present day by the end. One arc involves Monty Python, of course. One follows the numerous friendships he made over the years and their impact on his life, and still another follows his relationship to his family. The three combine to show how Idle grew as both a person and an entertainer over decades.

Idle’s childhood was far from idyllic, but he managed to cope. I really identified with his story about leaving boarding school to see movies in town by simply walking out the front door like he had every right. It’s how I find clean toilets in Europe. I pick the fanciest hotel nearby and walk in like I own the place. I’ve never been stopped or even questioned, and often someone will even hold the door to the hotel open for you.

In trying to understand why my tweet pissed him off, I read some reviews. The second most critical comment is that the book doesn’t contain enough Python. Well, right there on page 39, at the start of Chapter 7, is a whole paragraph about how so much stuff has already been written about Monty Python. What more needs to be said? This book is more about how Python played a role in Idle’s life versus a history of that show. And what it did was make him a celebrity.

The number one complaint, and I believe the source of his ire toward me, is that he mentions a lot of celebrity names. Apparently it bothered some people. It didn’t really bother me, because, seriously, who do celebrities hang out with outside of other celebrities? They are the only ones who can understand how celebrity affects one’s life, regardless of if it comes from music, acting, art, or even comedy. I found the rapid-fire stories of meeting famous people, ingesting various substances, jetting off to amazing places and shagging models kind of gave me a glimpse of what his life must have been like, especially in his younger days.

I couldn’t help but think as he was talking about all the temptations he yielded to, which often involved intimacy with beautiful young women, “What about his wife? Isn’t he married at this point?”

He soon addressed that. His son Carey was born in 1973 just before Grail and before The Rutles. In a chapter entitled “The Divorce Fairy” he owns up that his marriage to Lyn was ending just as 1976 was arriving and that it was primarily his fault. While he never really alludes to his current relationship with her, he does obviously care for his son who remains a fixture throughout the book. By the next chapter his talks about “growing up” at age 33 and meeting his second (and current) wife Tania. From what I read in the book Tania’s only flaw seems to be poor taste in men (much like my wife Andrea) and she even likes German Shepards.

Things seem to settle down a bit after he meets Tania. Sure, there are still stories of hanging out with celebrities but we also start to see him develop as a performer. While the Monty Python television series was long over, the troupe found new life in movies. He talks about the Python movies Life of Brian and The Meaning of Life as well as his very funny yet underrated Nuns on the Run (hurray for cable television in the South).

One of my favorite parts of the book is when he talks about the uproar over Life of Brian being sacrilegious. I can’t do it justice, so here is the quote:

We agreed early on, you couldn’t knock Christ. How can you attack a man who professes peace to all people, speaks out for the meek, heals the poor and cures the sick? You can’t. Comedy’s business is some kind of search for the truth. Clearly this was a very great man, leaving aside for a minute his potential divinity. No, the problem with Christianity was the followers, who would happily put each other to death at the drop of a dogma.

After The Meaning of Life and the death of Graham Chapman, Idle gets involved with stage plays and musical theatre. This eventually results in the mega-hit Spamlot which won the Tony for best Musical in 2005. Toward the end of the book there are stories about the famous Monty Python Live (Mostly) show at O2 arena. I watched a recording of this show and was pretty amazed at the rather lavish and professional production that included huge musical numbers complete with chorus lines, etc. It didn’t surprised me that Idle was the driving force behind it. After all, it is what he had been training for for years.

It was also then that I remembered the gag at the end of the “Galaxy Song” involving Stephen Hawking, so maybe I cheated, albeit subconsciously, in my guess that they would eventually meet.

I also enjoyed the stories of his friendships, especially with George Harrison and Robin Williams. I was horrified when I read his description of the attack on the Harrison home by a mentally deranged man, and I shed several tears reading about George Harrison’s death. I didn’t know that it was George Harrison who provided the financing for Brian, mortgaging his home to do it, simply because he believed in them and wanted to see the movie.

I also got a little verklempt reading about Robin William’s suicide. Of all the recent celebrity deaths, that one bothered me the most. Robin was kind of a geek idol: someone who showed it was okay to be weird, to be funny. I adored that man, although I never met him.

I remember two things about his death. On the news that night they led with his story, but later in the broadcast they mentioned that Kim Kardashian had produced a book of selfies that had immediately sold out. Now I have nothing against Ms. Kardashian making a buck, but I thought it was sad to live in a world where Robin was dead and selfies were trying to take his place.

That night I had a very realistic dream that I was able to stop him from committing suicide. For some reason I ended up at his house, and when he came to the door I could tell something was wrong. We talked for hours and when I finally left he was feeling better. We know now from the autopsy that his depression was caused by Lewy body dementia so no amount of talking would have helped, but it was a nice dream in any case.

The book ends with stories about a tour Idle did with John Cleese. I remember reading an interview with Cleese about that tour where a woman in Florida asked, in all seriousness, “Did the Queen kill Princess Diana”.

Cleese replied, “Certainly not with her hands”.

Although I can’t find an authoritative reference, Thoreau is credited with saying “Most men lead lives of quiet desperation, and go to their grave with the song still in them”. This is definitely not the case with Eric Idle. He is still living an amazing life and, it is hoped, still singing.

The House on the Rock

As part of my effort to deal with the PTSD I suffered after visiting The House on the Rock, I thought I would write up my experience here.

House on the Rock sign from American Gods

I first heard about The House on the Rock in Neil Gaiman’s masterpiece American Gods. Now that the book is being made into a television series, I wanted to visit before it becomes even more famous in the next season. The picture above is from the very end of Season 1.

I am in Minnesota for work, and I suggested to my friend Mike that I come up a day early and we drive out to The House on the Rock. It would be a long day as the attraction is four hours from Minneapolis, but I haven’t seen Mike in awhile and I was sure we could pass the time. The ride back was a lot quieter since we were still trying to process all that we saw. As sensitive as I assume Gaiman is, I can easily imagine that the whole idea of American Gods could have been triggered by visiting. It was both an amazing and an unsettling experience.

The House is located in a geographical area known as The Driftless, which is poetic on its own right. When glaciers extend and retract, they “leave behind silt, clay, sand, gravel, and boulders called drift”. This area was never exposed to glaciers, so it is both rugged and beautiful. It inspired Frank Lloyd Wright to build his studio and school Taliesin here, and the area is marked by tall columns of rock.

On one such column Alex Jordan Jr. decided to build a house. It started in 1945 as a private artist retreat, but word spread about the unusual house and by 1959 Jordan was able to charge admission. While the house itself is interesting in its own right, around the base were built a number of metal buildings which house the most eclectic and strange collection of items I’ve ever seen in one place.

House on the Rock Entrance

We did not see that sign shown in the television show, but as it is supposedly sixty miles away we probably didn’t come that way. I did ask about it when buying tickets and the lady was pretty closed-mouthed about filming. It would be hard for me to imagine that they would try to build a copy of the House on a set, and the typeface used on that sign is used throughout the property, so I’m eager to see what sections make it on the show.

Around the entrance are a number of very tall pots decorated with lizards and other creatures and used as a planter for flowers. I have a better picture later on but you can see one to the left of the sign in the image above.

After a short drive you come to a parking lot and the main visitors center. Take note of the metal building to the left used to house some of the collection, and you can also see another one of those pots.

House on the Rock Visitor Center

Here is where you buy your tickets and then you can enter another building that covers the history of the House. There are three sections you can tour, starting with the House itself. We decided to just do the first two, ending up at the Carousel. We are both glad we did because we were pretty weirded out by the end.

As a hint as to what to expect, the Visitor Center has a number of works that kind of set the mood for what you are going to see, such as this one.

Three Headed Statue

We wandered around the center for awhile but then were eager to start the tour. Even though it was lightly raining, all of the walkways are covered so it was easy to get around, and I also think that they limit what you can see to just what they want you to see. It was very hard to get a whole perspective of the place.

As you head to the House, you pass through the Asia Garden.

Asia Garden

This was pretty and way too normal for what was going to come later. We wandered around for a bit before heading up the ramp to the House on the Rock.

Entering the House you have to stoop. The ceilings are quite low, which is surprising since Jordan was supposed to be six foot two. I asked one of the ticket takers and she said it was to keep in the heat, but I’m not totally convinced. The visitor center stated that Jordan tended to build without many plans, and would often tear down a section that didn’t work and rebuild it.

One of the first rooms you enter features a set of automated musical instruments. This group played Ravel’s Boléro.

Instruments Playing Bolero

I haven’t been able to get that song fully out of my mind.

While it definitely looks like they are producing the music, I’ve read that some of the music coming from these animated machines is simulated. I can kind of believe that, since the amount of tuning and upkeep would be daunting. But then, considering how bad some of them sound, it is also easy to believe they are real. It is kind of at this point the place starts to seep into your mind. What is real, what isn’t, and what in the hell would drive someone to create stuff like this?

I also want to mention the smell. The House on the Rock smells very, very odd. Sometimes you get a whiff of something musty, like in an old attic. Other times it is a much more … biological smell. It is almost impossible to determine where the specific smells are coming from and they can wax strong and then wane faint in seconds. In telling people about our weekend, one person said they had a friend who had to leave because of the smell, but I just found it disconcerting.

Back in the 1950s to the 1970s, some “modern” houses were built with sunken areas called conversation pits. Many of the rooms in the House looked designed around that aesthetic.

Conversation Pit

The House is built on many levels, and at one point we heard a player piano above us. Climbing some ramps and stairs we came to another decorated living space.

Living Room

That’s Mike in the shorts and you can see the piano in the background. The entire tour was very dimly lit when not outside, so I will apologize in advance for the quality of some of the pictures.

At some point you end up at the Infinity Room. Built in 1985, this is a cantilevered 218 foot room that shrinks to a point in the distance, with around 3000 panes of glass forming the windows.

Infinity Room

You can’t walk to the end of it, but when you get close there is a rectangle cut into the floor so you can look directly down on the tree tops.

Glass in the Infinity Room

It kind of reminded me of the “Moon Door” in the Eyrie castle in the Game of Thrones television series.

You end up exiting the House the same way you came in, and I tried to get a shot of the exterior of the building. As I mentioned before, much of this is blocked by the covered walkway, but I was able to stick my camera out at arms length and get this picture.

House on the Rock Exterior View

After leaving the house you walk back down to start the second, and much weirder, part of the tour. We were there during the Halloween season, and so some of the place was decorated with things like skulls.

Walkway with Skulls

I want to point out the side of the metal building. They do an extremely good job keeping you from realizing that your a basically wandering around inside a big metal warehouse. We walked down the path and entered the building.

The first section we came to was called The Streets of Yesterday.

Streets of Yesterday

This is an area designed to look like a street in a small town in the 19th century. It reminded me a lot of Pirates of the Caribbean (the ride not the movie). You knew you were in a building but it was dark, the ceiling was high above you and the light was dim and indirect. The “street” was lined with a number of “shops” but I have never been in a place that would have shops like this so close together and it was more of a way to show off various collections.

Like dolls? Go to the doll store:

Store with Dolls

How about clocks?

Store with Clocks

and there was china:

Store with China

Each store displayed a collection that would have been the pride of any collector of those particular objects, but it was weird seeing so many of them clumped close together. Plus there was little context. It’s like a rich compulsive hoarder met up with an OCD museum coordinator with an aversion to labels. It was also hard to tell what was real and what was just made up. Take this display of firearms:

Weird Pistols

See those strange pistols with the many, many barrels? While some of them resemble real “pepper box” pistols, others looked like they were simply welded together to look funky and would never fire. But without context you didn’t know.

It was at this point my mind started going all sideways. Who would put something like this together? Who had a fetish for, say, dolls and antique brass cash registers?

Cash Registers

We then moved on to a section dedicated to music machines called Music of Yesterday.

Music of Yesterday

I should mention that a lot of these devices wouldn’t move or play until you inserted a token. I expected a token to be expensive, like one for a dollar, but it turns out they cost a quarter. This is wise on the part of the owners since if it were free people would just push everything they passed. I can’t imagine many of these devices would stand up to that kind of use. As it was, it was rare to pass one of the larger displays that someone had not already inserted a token.

We bought some tokens when we got to this player piano thing with an odd mechanism (it had a xylophone attached to it but it didn’t seem to use that part). The music was produced using a scroll of paper, like other player pianos, but instead of winding it on a spool it was just pushed and folded into a glass case at the top of the device.

Player Piano with Scroll Music

It would feed out of the left side and then get smushed back in on the right. I was very surprised it worked.

While that was a standalone machine, many of the displays contained numerous musical devices.

Music Room

Probably the most famous is a machine called the “Mikado”. In the visitor center we read that Jordan had acquired a number of Asian figures in Chicago and they created this display to use them. I captured this one with a short video.

Melodious, no?

In the last room in this section there was a calliope called The Gladiator.

The Gladiator

I liked this one because I thought the male figures looked like Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.

Off to the right of The Gladiator was a small machine that told fortunes.

Fortune Teller

This device is mentioned in American Gods, and had I had the time to read up on it before visiting I would have inserted a token. As it was, I thought it was cool enough to take a picture of it.

As we left this section Mike and I were talking about a time we visited the main Google campus, but as we turned into the Heritage of the Sea display our conversation just trailed off into silence.

We were looking at this:

Huge Whale

Now a blue whale can get up to one hundred feet long. This thing was two hundred feet long and huge. Who, I mean who makes something like this? It’s crazy. And if adding teeth to a two hundred foot long blue whale model wasn’t enough, why not have it being attacked by a huge Kraken/Octopus thing?

The Kraken's Eye

Again, here we are, in this huge room dwarfed by one of the largest sculptures I’ve ever seen and we were reduced to blubbering. Why? Seriously, why? We don’t even know what it was made of. It looked like it could have been formed concrete over a wire frame, but it was more likely some sort of foam that was sprayed and then carved (concrete would be very heavy)

It was crazy. Gaiman wrote of the House on the Rock in a blog post that “I had to tone down my description of it and leave things out in the book in order to make it believable.”

A set of ramps, five levels tall, surrounded this spectacle. In cases along the wall were collections of items with a nautical theme. There was a Titanic display with items that may, or may not, have been from the ship, such as a menu. In keeping with shipwrecks there was another case focused on the Lusitania. In between you might find scale models of tall ships or a Soviet sub. As you got higher you could see more of the massive sculpture in the center.

More Huge Whale

I did take a picture of two models of the Monitor and the Merrimack, considered the first battle between armored ships.

Monitor and Merrimack

Another view of the Kraken:

Moar Kraken

As I mentioned, this seems to be a blue whale, but blue whales do not have big teeth (like sperm whales do).

Huge Whale Mouth

Of course, without the teeth it would have a hard time eating a boat, right?

Huge Whale Mouth Eating a Boat

I can just hear the artist now: okay, we have this big honking whale thing being attacked by a big honking octopus thing, but something is missing. I know – a boat in the whale’s mouth.

After leaving Heritage of Sea we were a little shaken. It is hard to get across how this tour makes you feel. You are trying to puzzle out some sort of reason or system and it just isn’t there.

The next exhibits were tame by comparison. You get into an area that is a little more modern, so why not put up a bunch of hot air balloon models.

Hot Air Balloons

The tented space below was a pizzeria restaurant with some of the sorriest looking pizza I have ever seen. It also plays a role in American Gods and it isn’t like you can miss it since the way out is through the restaurant.

There were some other displays. For example, why not stick a perfectly normal looking Gull-wing Mercedes in this place?

Gull-wing Mercedes

If that is too normal, walk a few feet to admire a 1963 Lincoln Continental with suicide doors, a radiator modeled after the one on a Rolls Royce, and covered in over a ton of ceramic tile?

Lincoln Covered in Tile

There was still a touch of the weird, such as a display featuring marionettes:

Marionettes

and a store that displayed cameras:

Camera Store

The camera display was labeled with detailed little cards for most of the items. Mike and I joked that the guy who set up the display must have been busily working along when Jordan ran in, saw the labels and screamed “What are you doing! Stop that right now!”

Exiting this area we came to a few more displays, including another elaborate music room.

Stringed Instruments

For some reason the devices they used to control the strings reminded me of something out of H.R. Giger, and they reminded me of the facehuggers from Alien. I did put up a little video if you want to see them in action.

The final room on the tour was the coup de grace. It was a huge room dominated by the world’s largest indoor carousel. Eighty feet wide and 36 feet tall, it features over 20,000 lights, 183 chandeliers and 269 animals. Not one of which is a horse (I thought I saw one in the back but it turned out to have a fish tail, making it a hippocampus).

If that weren’t enough, the walls and ceiling were covered with angels. Well, female mannequins with wings. Just to try and explain the weirdness, many of the wigs weren’t on straight and some of the dresses were falling off. To finish the effect, throw in some of those automated musical instruments and add the mouth of a large monster (whose eyes move) leading the way to section three, just for good measure.

We’d had enough. After chatting with the employee in charge of watching over the carousel (you are not allowed to ride it), with followed the ominous sign out of the building.

Final Exit

You exit into the Japanese Garden, which was a beautiful example of normalcy after the previous two hours of insanity.

Japanese Garden

As you exit past the gift shop, there were a few more of those huge pots we saw at the entrance.

Large Pot and Sign

We made our way back to the car and started the long drive back to Minneapolis. We stopped at Taliesin but our hearts weren’t in it and we’d missed the last tour of the day in any case.

Two days (and one long blog post) later, I’m starting to come back to normal. I do want to go back and take Andrea. Perhaps I’ll have the nerve to do section three, and I would like to visit Taliesin. Even if you aren’t a fan of Neil Gaiman, if you have the chance to visit the House on the Rock, I urge you to take it.

It is a place of power.

Review: The Collapsing Empire by John Scalzi

I live on a farm, and a lot of my spare time is spent simply maintaining the property. When we moved out there so many years ago, I had grand plans for all of the land: an orchard over here, a hedge maze over there, and wonderful garden near the kitchen.

Then reality set in and it’s all I can do to keep the place from getting overrun with weeds. Luckily, nature gives me a bit of a respite with winter, but now that it is over I can look forward to the majority of my weekends being taken up outside. Not that I really mind, to be honest, but it doesn’t leave a tremendous amount of time for other pursuits I love, such as reading.

Last weekend was an exception. I decided to spend it reading (and watching NCAA basketball, but that’s church) and managed to read two really good novels.

One, The Fifth Season I have already reviewed, which was loaned to me by Ben. The second was The Collapsing Empire by John Scalzi.

I picked this book up last week at Flyleaf Books in Chapel Hill where Scalzi was appearing on a book tour promoting the novel. If you bought a copy there you could get it signed, so I went, along with Ben and his bride Cynthia.

If you get a chance to see Scalzi speak, I highly recommend it (here is a link to his tour dates). He does a really good job and I found the hour entertaining. He moved the talk along without ignoring the audience, which was loaded with your usual assortment of Sci-Fi nerds and people who just love books (for example, a group of us. some strangers, played the mobile version of Exploding Kittens on our phones while waiting for the talk to begin).

Afterward, we lined up for a few minutes with the man himself. Ben and Cynthia are “Sea Monkeys”, otherwise known as people who take the annual JoCo Cruise, and they had seen Scalzi speak a month ago on the boat. They were ahead of me in the signing line and bonded a bit with Scalzi over that shared experience.

Everyone who knows me knows I love to talk, especially with interesting people, but I knew I wouldn’t have much time with him. I did want to talk about something cool, and I brought up a memory triggered by his talk.

He didn’t read from The Collapsing Empire, instead he talked about the upcoming book in his Lock In series. In that universe, 1% of the world’s population suffers from a condition known as “Lock In” when they are fully awake yet fully paralyzed (similar to the end-stage effects of Lou Gehrig’s disease and other causes of Locked-in Syndrome). Technology comes to the rescue allowing those who suffer from this condition to pilot and interact through android bodies, called “Threeps” after the character C-3PO.

I got to thinking about what it would be like to interact with one or more people in such a body, and it reminded me of an incident that happened with our telepresence robot at the office. We have a device made by Double Robotics that you can think of as an iPad on a Segway. People can connect to it and drive it around. At my office we have a number of people who work remotely, some in other countries, so we got this robot to make it easier for them to feel part of the team.

One time I knew that Ronny, who lives in Germany, was on the robot talking to Jessica (our graphic designer) in her office about a new web site design. Even though I communicate with him often via instant messenger or a Hangout, when I realized I needed to ask him a question I unconsciously got up, left my office and went to talk with him in her office. It only struck me how odd that was after I returned to my desk and noticed my chat window. Thus, I think it would be very easy for such androids to assimilate into our culture without some sort of Future Shock.

We chatted about this for a minute, and then I offered my hand for a handshake. I immediately felt foolish, because I know a number of people who interact with lots of strangers tend to shy away from contact, but he shook my hand without hesitation. I did notice him grab the Purell right afterward and had to laugh. I like to think I’m on the high end of the geek hygiene scale but having suffered for nearly two months with some crud I picked up in Brussels at FOSDEM, I totally understood.

Anyway, back to the book. I always like to stress that I am not a professional book reviewer (I write these more to capture my own thoughts than for general consumption) and I try to stay away from spoilers. This is easier with a book I like, like this one, so minimal spoilers ahead but if you are sensitive to such things don’t continue on. If you want better reviews, check out Goodreads.

The Collapsing Empire Cover

The first thing I noticed about the novel is that it felt slim. At 329 pages it was a lot smaller than the last two speculative fiction (SF) novels I read (The Fifth Season at 512 pages and Babylon’s Ashes at 544 pages). But then Neil Gaiman’s The Ocean at the End of the Lane was a scant 181 pages. Scalzi even addressed this on his blog, and from my own experience it read like a novel so no complaints there.

For some reason SF stories tend to span multiple volumes. Since I fully understand the author’s need to eat I know why they are released over time, but it can be frustrating for the fan. Some of my favorite authors are also notoriously slow writers. In some cases it doesn’t matter. For example, Neal Stephenson puts out huge books but for the most part they stand alone (the Baroque Cycle being the exception). I know as a reader that once I get to the end of it there will be some sense of closure. Other authors tell epic stories that don’t end with that last page, and it can be a bit frustrating waiting for the next part of the tale. Now I’m not one of those fans who are all “Write me a book, bitch,” it is art after all and art doesn’t follow schedules or deadlines, but I understand the sentiment.

My point (and yes, there is a point here) is that I really don’t care about the length of a book as long as the story is solid, and I don’t care if it spans multiple volumes as long as those come out on a regular basis. The two authors I mentioned above, Jemisin and Corey, are pretty good about releasing a new book once a year, and that once every one or two years works for me. I read so much that if it goes on much past that I end up having to re-read the original books, and quite often I don’t have the time.

Scalzi is pretty good about his output, although he did mention in the “Acknowledgments” that he was frustrated by the time it took to finish The Collapsing Empire.

Yes, there is a book review in here somewhere. I’m getting to it.

The Collapsing Empire takes place several centuries in the future of the Earth, and humankind has spread out to other star systems. One thing that all SF writers who include interstellar travel have to deal with is that pesky issue of the speed of light.

In our current understanding of the universe, nothing can travel faster than the speed of light. As one approaches the speed of light, time, length and momentum change by an amount called the Lorentz factor, often represented by the variable gamma. Here is an equation for gamma:

Lorentz Factor Gamma Equation

Note that it looks kind of scary, but it becomes much easier if you represent velocity, v, as a percentage of the speed of light.

For example, at one-tenth the speed of light, 0.10c or roughly 30,000 km/s, the denominator becomes the square root of (1 – 0.01) or 0.99499 which divided into one results in a gamma of 1.005. This means that at one-tenth the speed of light, time will appear to be half a percent slower, length will appear half a percent shorter and momentum will be half a percent greater.

Just to note that one of the fastest things I know about, the Voyager 1 spacecraft, is only moving about 17 km/sec, and if you plug that into the gamma equation the difference is negligible. This is why Newtonian physics gets the job done in most situations.

As you get closer to the speed of light, gamma gets larger. At 0.9c gamma is 2.29 and at 0.999c it’s 22.4. At the speed of light the denominator becomes 0 so gamma becomes infinite. This demonstrates why faster than light travel is not possible. With a Lorentz factor of near infinity it would take an infinite amount of energy to go faster.

Note that the speed of light is a limit with the caveat “for now”. The light speed limitation applies to everything, including information, but there is some evidence that it may be possible to send information faster than the speed of light.

Anyway, since the nearest star to Earth, the red dwarf Proxima Centauri, is 4.25 light years away, interstellar travel is problematic. Let’s say the bad guy in the story hops in his starship, cranks it up to a whopping one-tenth the speed of light, and heads out for the nearest star. The plot would have to pick up with his offspring something like 40 years into the future, assuming they survive. Not very exciting.

So it is up to SF authors to come up with some way around this speed limit. In Star Trek it was “warp speed” and in Star Wars it was “hyperspace”. In the past Scalzi came up with a rather unique way of addressing this by using multiple universes. In quantum theory, at microscopic levels it becomes impossible to know the exact location and the exact momentum of a particle at the same time. Thus the particle’s state is defined by a series of possibilities, describe by something called a “wave function”. When a measurement is made, the wave function is said to collapse into one of the possible states. One interpretation of this is that there are actually an infinite number of universes, real close to one another and representing all possibilities, and when the wave function collapses it is our consciousness, through the measurement, deciding in which one it wants to be.

Pretty heady stuff.

In Scalzi’s system, the way to travel to another star is to simply pick the alternative universe that is the same in every way as the one you are in, with the exception that you are there and not here.

While it is dangerous to apply quantum theory to macroscopic things, such as a cat, I thought Scalzi’s use of it was pretty original and cool.

With that prologue (sigh) let’s get back to The Collapsing Empire. In this universe Scalzi invents a new method for faster than light travel. Humans have discovered a part of the physical world called “The Flow”. It is, to paraphrase Ted Stevens, quite literally a series of (one way) tubes. While the physics of The Flow is pretty abstract (and not really relevant to the story), ships are able to enter a particular Flow at an entry point called a Shoal. Then, after some amount of time, they will exit the Flow at some distant location. This has enabled humans to colonize a number of star systems, although for the most part the places they live are underground in constructed habitats, as Earth-like worlds are hard to come by.

The main seat of civilization is one such habitat called The Hub, because it is located near a large number of entry and exit points to various Flows. Travel within a flow is not instantaneous, and the farthest system, End, is over nine months of Flow travel away from Hub.

The actual physics of The Flow is unimportant because this story is much more about plotting and intrigue than space travel. With all of these far-flung outposts of humanity, society had to be structured in such a way that they didn’t go to war with each other. The solution chosen was called the Interdependency. Resources were parceled out under control of guilds, which in turn were controlled by dynastic houses. Guilds received a monopoly on various products, and since these were scattered out among the various habitats it required them to work together in order to survive. One such house, the House of Wu, was powerful enough to install an emperor, called in the book by the gender-neutral term emperox, who stands at the top of society’s hierarchy.

The book takes place when two big events are happening to the Interdependency. One is that the emperox is dying, and we pick up with the first days of the new emperox. The second is that The Flow, which was considered stable, is now entering a time of great flux. In a very short period of time these “tubes” between various outposts of humanity are going to close forever, and thus the Interdependency is about to collapse. In fact, the Flow to (and I assume, from) Earth disappeared centuries earlier, as did one to another settlement, but those were considered outliers to The Flow’s innate stability.

Against this backdrop we get a healthy dose of court politics and backstabbing. Certain parties have more accurate information than others, and since these changes to The Flow mean, basically, the Interdependency is finished, people are angling to be in the best position when it goes away. As usual in such situations, some people are more concerned for their own well-being than those of society as a whole. It is a lot of fun to uncover the various plots and to see just how far people are willing to go to achieve their ambitions.

One of the coolest things he introduces is a perk of being an emperox. An interface is inserted into your neck which then records everything you think and experience. When you die this information is added to the “Memory Room” where the next emperox can come in and talk to those who held the position in the past. Scalzi makes use of this throughout the story, but what I liked about it is that the constructs of those who were emperox in the past are without ego, so they talk without any filters. I think it would be so interesting to be able to talk with certain people who lived in the past and get access to their unvarnished thoughts.

All of this is done in the prose for which Scalzi is known. I had to look up some new words, such as “squicked”, and toward the end he refers to one house as the House of Jemisin, which is an obvious nod to the author N.K. Jemisin.

It was a fun read, and I really look forward to the rest of the series. It looks like his next book, Head On will continue the story started in Lock In so I guess we can expect the next one in this series, The Last Emperox in late 2018 or early 2019. Despite that, I wouldn’t wait to read The Collapsing Empire, as it is really good on its own.

Review: The Fifth Season by N.K. Jemisin

Over the weekend I read the excellent The Fifth Season by N.K. Jemisin. I always feel the need to justify negative reviews with examples, but since I liked it expect this review to be light on spoilers. However, if you are sensitive to such things, read the book and then come back. As usual, this post will be meandering and contain a lot of digressions, so you might want to just go check out Goodreads.

The Fifth Season Cover

This book won the best novel Hugo Award last year. I have a strange relationship with the Hugos, brought on mainly through my acquaintance with Ursula Vernon.

I live outside of the small town of Pittsboro, North Carolina. It is rare that we have any sort of celebrity here (well, unless I bring them) and outside of a brief handshake with Al Roker, it’s not often I’ve met anyone even quasi-famous.

Through my work with open source software, I met a man named Kevin and eventually I was introduced to his partner, Ursula. She had written a number of things, most notably a web comic called “Digger”. Digger is a wombat who has, shall we say, adventures. Wonderful adventures. It’s delightful and was successful enough to be turned into books.

In 2012 those books were nominated for a Hugo. This is a Big Thing™ especially for someone I actually know.

So, me being me, I set out to find out how I could vote in the Hugo awards. I figured someone has to, so why can’t I?

The awards are given out by the World Science Fiction Society at the annual WorldCon convention. In 2012 you could become a supporting member for $50, and that let you nominate and vote for works in the various award categories. Not only that, but it also included digital copies of all of the nominated works (which are a lot). It was definitely worth it.

I joined specifically to vote for Ursula, but, me being me, I felt I couldn’t vote on the other categories unless I was familiar with the nominees, so familiar I became. I read everything they allowed me to, including all of the novels.

Of course, the hands down winner for best novel of 2012 was Leviathan Wakes by James S.A. Corey (now a television series on the SyFy network). Of course, it didn’t win.

The winning novel, Among Others by Jo Walton, was good, but I felt that it pandered a little too much to the nostalgia of speculative fiction. Ironically, I was reminded of the film Hugo which was in part about the history of film making, much as Among Others reflected on the golden age of science fiction and fantasy. I saw this as a bias in the process, although understandable and not like one that would soon grow into a controversy on its own right.

Ursula Vernon at the Hugos

Even though my preferred novel didn’t win, Ursula did (and she was up against some strong competition). Read about it in her own words. I love this picture of her on stage, she’s on the left with Neil Gaiman on the right. She has since won a Nebula for her short story “Jackalope Wives”, and I’m trying to angle an invitation to “Kevin and Ursula Eat Cheap” where they eat weird things and drink a lot. When I do, I plan to drink and then fondle both awards.

Anyway, what does this have to do with The Fifth Season? Well, it won the Hugo which means it was probably pretty good, but it made me wonder, did it “win win” or just “win”?

Of the other nominated works, I had only read Seveneves which I reviewed here. I’ve read the first of Ann Leckie’s Ancillary series and quite liked it, but I haven’t read Ancillary Mercy. The other nominated author I’m familiar with is Jim Butcher, and while I haven’t read The Aeronaut’s Windlass I love his other work so I’d probably like this as well (I just realized how behind I’ve gotten on my reading).

When Ben loaned me The Fifth Season and I saw “Hugo Winner” right on the cover, I was a little skeptical. I knew it had to be good, rarely have I found a Hugo nominated work I didn’t like, but I wondered how much was talent and how much was hype?

After reading it, I’m convinced it is talent. While it is hard to compare a book like this, which is heavy on character development and interaction, with a saga like Seveneves, which is set in space and is heavy on technology and science, I think she earned the honor.

The story takes place on Earth (or a planet very Earth-like) several millennia in the future. All of the continents have come together in sort of a “Pangaea” and a number of civilizations have come and gone, including the one we live in now. While a number of “deadciv” artifacts are still about, including some orbiting obelisks, the current level of technology seems to be stuck around the Middle Ages, with a few modern conveniences thrown in for the rich. The land is called the “Stillness” which is ironic, since the world is constantly subject to various tectonic issues. Every few hundred years something happens, usually a huge volcanic eruption, that creates a “Season” (or a fifth season in addition to the usual four). The resulting earthquakes and ash radically disrupt the normal flow of things, which causes hardships for the people living in the Stillness.

To prepare for this, society has organized itself into “comms” or communities. These are groups of people who have banded together to guard against a potential Season. Most people are identified by three names: their given name, their use-caste, and their comm. For example, a politician would be in the Leadership use-caste, so someone like North Carolina governor Roy Cooper might be known as Roy Leadership Carolina, or some such. There are twenty such use names, with the most common being things like Strongback, Resistant, and Innovator.

Now this wouldn’t be a fantasy novel without a fantasy element. In this case certain humans, called orogenes, have a magical affinity for the Earth. They can use this power to still possible quakes and tremors, and trained orogenes can further manipulate matter in very magical ways.

And that’s the problem. Untrained orogenes can actually cause a lot of damage. In deference to a number of magical systems (the one that comes to mind is the “sympathy” of Patrick Rothfuss) the energy to do those manipulations has to come from somewhere, and in some cases it can be from surrounding human beings. As you can imagine, removing energy from your body, mainly in the form of heat, is not a healthy idea. Mistakes get made and people die.

This causes a lot of superstition and suspicion. In fact, most of the non-orogene “stills” refer to them by the derogatory term “rogga” which is similar to “nigger” in our society.

To help deal with this, the rulers of this society have created a place called “The Fulcrum” where orogenes can be trained to use their powers. New recruits, almost always children, are called “grits” and as they master their abilities they can gain rings (from one to ten corresponding to each finger). The more rings you have earned the higher your status in orogene society. Since those orogenes with many rings can be quite powerful, and even grits can kill, they are watched over by “Guardians” who have the ability to block the orogenes’ power with a power of their own.

Against this backdrop, Jemisin weaves three story lines that ultimately come together. In one she uses the second person, thus “you” do certain things. I’ve read a number of novels written in the second person, such as Bright Lights, Big City, and while I like the device it almost always becomes tedious. Jemisin avoids this by only using it for part of the book.

And that is one of the reasons I think this book earned the Hugo. There are a number of great storytellers out there, but few can use things like second person and multiple story lines and still keep the attention of the reader. I strongly recommend any fan of speculative fiction check it out. I’m very eager to read the next one in the series, The Obelisk Gate once Ben is finished with it. (grin)

Pokémon Go From an Ingress Perspective

This weekend I managed to “catch” my 143rd unique pokémon in the game Pokémon Go. Currently it is possible to catch 145 different pokémon, but four of them are regional and I’ve only been to two of the regions. This means that I have caught all of the ones it has been possible for me to catch.

Pokédex with 143 Caught

As a player of Niantic’s other game, Ingress, I thought I’d write up a review of Pokémon Go but from the perspective of an Ingress player.

I’ve written about Ingress before so I won’t go into detail, but the easiest way to sum it up is that it is a geo-location “capture the flag” game played on mobile devices. Players are on either the green “Enlightened” team or the blue “Resistance” team and the object is to physically move from place to place to visit locations called “portals”. Using items found in-game, players can control the portals for their team and points are scored for the amount of control a given team has over the playing field, which happens to be the planet Earth.

It can get quite addictive, so when Pokémon Go came out I had decided to pass, as the last thing I needed was another time sink like Ingress. However, Andrea started playing so I did as well. There are many different aspects to the game, but the part I liked was trying to catch all of the different types of pokémon. My OCD kicked in and I was determined to do it even though the game became kind of boring, and now that I’ve done it (well, to my satisfaction) I don’t really have the desire to play it much more.

Pokémon Go shares a lot with Ingress. For example, both require you to move around to different locations, and the locations in Pokémon Go happen to correspond to the portal locations in Ingress. But they differ in a lot of important ways.

Pokémon Go Splash Screen

Pokémon Go is a joint venture between Niantic Labs and The Pokémon Company, although I think the opening splash screen can be misleading since it looks like Niantic is The Pokémon Company. When I first heard about the game, the partnership made sense, since Pokémon has this huge legacy and backstory that fits well with Niantic’s tech.

Pokédex

In a nutshell, the goal of Pokémon Go is to catch “pokémon”, or little monsters. You do this by finding them in the “real world” by walking around and they will then appear in the application. You then throw a “Poké Ball” at them, and if you aim well, you have a chance to trap the pokémon in the ball and they get added to your collection. Catching a unique pokémon will add an entry into your “Pokédex” and one of the goals is to catch one of every type. Various actions let you earn “experience points” (XP) and the more experience you have, the more powerful the ‘mon you encounter and the more items you can use (both you and your ‘mon have levels, and you can’t have a ‘mon higher than you).

You don’t have unlimited Poké Balls. They, along with other in-game items, have to be acquired by visiting a “Pokéstop”. When you are near enough to a Pokéstop location, you can “spin” it (in the app you do this by swiping your finger across the screen) and you will receive things. You get Poké Balls (of different types depending on your level) as well as potions that can help heal your ‘mon after combat (more on that later). You can also receive an egg. When an egg is placed into an incubator, it will hatch after you walk a certain distance (2km, 5km or 10km depending on the type of egg) and produce a pokémon.

One of the things Niantic did right with the game is monetize it from the start. You don’t have to walk and spin to get Poké Balls, you can buy them. While you get one unlimited incubator when you start, you can either earn or buy more (although the ones you buy are limited to three uses). You can also increase the limits on your inventory (number of items) or your bag (number of pokémon). There are a number of other items you can obtain, such as “lures” which can be applied to a Pokéstop to attract more ‘mon, or a “lucky egg” that will double your XP for 30 minutes. This allows Niantic to generate, even now, millions of dollars a day.

[On a side note, if I were serious about trying to level in the game I would simply buy lucky eggs. If you buy 14,500 pokécoins for $99.99, that’s 0.69 cents a coin. You can then use 1250 coins to buy 25 lucky eggs, or roughly 34 cents an egg. Since each is good for 30 minutes, if you decided to play 4 hours a day it would cost you $2.76 to double your XP].

You don’t have to give Niantic money, however. Another aspect of the game are “gyms” where you can battle and train your ‘mon against others. Gyms, like Pokéstops, exist at certain locations. In much the same way you “capture” a portal in Ingress, you can deploy a ‘mon on an empty gym. Once every 21 hours you can collect ten “coins” for each ‘mon you have on a gym.

In order to “train” your pokémon, you have to choose a team. Unlike the two in Ingress there are three in Pokémon Go: red (Valor), blue (Mystic) and yellow (Instinct). If a gym is claimed by a team, three ‘mon can immediately be added, but in order to add more (up to ten) you have to train on the gym, which means battle your ‘mon against the ‘mon already on the gym. If successful, you gain XP and the gym gains “prestige”. As it gains prestige, more ‘mon can be added. If the gym is owned by another team, you battle as before but this time you lower the gym’s prestige. When it hits zero the gym goes gray and can be claimed.

I want to point out that the best thing about Pokémon Go is that it is “nice”. You use “candy” to evolve and power up your ‘mon. Once you’ve captured one, it is yours unless you decide to trade it to the “Professor”. You can’t lose it in battle. In fact, your ‘mon is never “killed” in battle, it just falls asleep, and then you have to use an item called a “revive” to wake it up, sort of like smelling salts. While Ingress has an in-game communication system so that players can chat with each other, this is missing from Pokémon Go. This is both a curse and a blessing – comms in Ingress can get abusive – but the lack of such a system makes it very difficult to find other members of your team. Another good thing in Pokémon Go is that you can play pretty much anywhere. Pokémon will spawn away from a Pokéstop or gym, so you can play on your couch. With Ingress, unless you happen to live or work next to a portal, you are limited in what you can do without moving.

To reach the highest level in Ingress, Level 16, requires 40 million “action points” (AP). To reach the highest level in Pokémon Go, Level 40, you need 20 million XP. Thus Pokémon points are worth half of an Ingress point.

Pokémon Go Levels

But therein lies the problem. In Ingress I can go to certain areas and gain 80 thousand or so points in a few minutes. Note that this is rare but possible. With Pokémon Go it is just a grind. There isn’t a way to get a lot of points at once, so once you hit the higher levels it starts to get dull. I made it to Level 27 and pretty much decided to quit trying to level, but did hit Level 28 through casual play. As with most gaming systems, the points required to level start to increase exponentially and so progress begins to slow as you advance. It also gets real frustrating when you need a particular ‘mon and can’t find it. With Ingress I’m in control of my destiny – I need to make links, I can go make links. In Pokémon Go the last ‘mon I needed was the Charizard, which is the fully evolved form of the Charmander. The problem is that they are rare in the areas I play. I needed 100 candy but only had 50. Luckily, Niantic added the ability to choose a ‘mon as your “buddy” and earn candy by walking. I had to walk nearly 70km to get the candy I needed. Andrea is even worse off since the ‘mon she is missing is the Aerodactyl, which I got by hatching an egg but we’ve never seen it in the wild. You can’t evolve one so her only hope of getting it is to get lucky with a 10K egg or stumble across one in the wild.

Walked nearly 70km

Which brings me to the main reason I like Ingress better than Pokémon Go. Ingress, warts and all, is inherently a social game. Portals can be up to level 8, but it takes two players to make a portal higher than 5, three to make one higher than 6 and a total of eight players to make a Level 8 portal. Doing a lot of the fun things in the game requires cooperation and coordination, and nothing illustrates this more than the “anomaly” events Niantic holds to bring Ingress players together. For example, we spent last weekend in New Orleans with a group of our friends playing the game at one such anomaly. The actual game play happened over five hours or so on Saturday, but we had a lot of fun the whole weekend hanging out and creating memories.

By contrast, Pokémon Go seems lonelier. While I play with Andrea (more than one person can attack a gym at the same time) only once have we managed to meet another player on our team and we forgot to come up with a way to meet up with him again. When the game came out, I started talking to the young people who were all excited about it, and a week later most of them had stopped playing because it “wasn’t fun”. If it could be made more of a social game perhaps that would help keep people interested.

Another thing that isn’t fun and that affects both games is GPS “spoofing”. It is somewhat easy to fool the games into thinking you are somewhere that you are not. When Pokémon Go started we had an issue with players trespassing at our office. We have security cameras that caught them in the act, but now more often than not when our gym changes teams no one actually bothered to come by – they just sat at home and spoofed their GPS. For Pokémon Go this lets you catch ‘mon that you might not otherwise see and to control more gyms, but in Ingress it has become extremely frustrating as a player may spend days setting up a portal in a remote location just to have a player for the other team take it out with little effort. When I was trying to get candy for my Charizard I was walking around town a lot. I stopped into the Chinese restaurant to grab lunch and the guy behind the counter saw my handy and that I was playing Pokémon. I looked at his phone and saw the same app, although his map looked totally different than mine. Turns out he was “in” San Francisco.

I’m not sure how Niantic can fully address the problem. While you can report abuse, with the success of Pokémon Go they don’t have the staff to manage that game much less pay attention to Ingress.

A few final notes, while the Ingress app is pretty stable, the Pokémon Go app needs some help. I have to restart it a couple of times an hour when playing, which just adds to the frustration. Plus, they have made it harder and harder to find pokémon, and the latest update requires you to travel at a relatively slow speed (seems to be around 8mph) in order to do anything. May be fine in a large city, but it sucks in rural towns.

So I won’t miss Pokémon Go. Andrea seems convinced I’ll pick it up when they release more generations of pokémon but I don’t think that will entice me. I’ve actually scaled way back on my Ingress play as well, but I still look forward to seeing my friends again at anomalies.

Overall, if you grew up playing Pokémon you’ll probably continue to play Pokémon Go, but for most non-fans the novelty wears off really fast.

Review: Star Trek: Beyond

When J.J. Abrams took over the Star Trek franchise, the biggest complaint I heard is that he departed from canon by turning it into an action series. Well, fans should rejoice since he has helped return it to its roots where odd numbered movies suck. This was a steaming pile, and should remind people more of Star Trek V: The Final Frontier than the last two movies.

The main fault lies in the plot, which has more holes than a square parsec of Swiss cheese. When I dislike a movie I feel the need to explain why in detail, which will pretty much reveal the whole story, so if you hate spoilers or plan to see this dog then stop reading now.

Star Trek Poster

Okay, the movie starts out with a throwaway scene where Captain Kirk is trying to negotiate a peace treaty. He’s seen in an impressive chamber where threatening aliens sit above him in judgment, and when they decide he is there to trick them they attack. Turns out they are the size of terriers (ha ha) and James is beamed to safety.

As a peace offering, Kirk had brought part of an ancient weapon, which Spock returns to the ship’s archives. There is a weak attempt at character development as Kirk is thinking about taking a desk job and Spock returning to New Vulcan, but it really goes nowhere.

Speaking of nowhere, there is a new super space station called the Yorktown at the edge of known space near a scary nebula, and that is the next stop for the crew of the Enterprise. It’s a big, glittery ball in space housing millions of Federation citizens and you know from the moment you see it that it will be in peril by the third act. Oh, and Sulu is gay.

Soon after they dock a mysterious ship comes out of the nebula bearing an alien named Kalara. She tells a tale of how her ship was attacked near a planet in the center of the nebula, and of course the Enterprise is the only ship that is advanced enough to navigate through all the debris to reach it (well, outside of a ship under construction at Yorktown).

Within twenty minutes of screen time, the Enterprise goes to the planet where it is attacked and destroyed by Krall, the big bad in this movie. Can’t seem to have a Star Trek movie without blowing up the ship, can we?

One of the two cool things in this movie was his “fleet” which consists of a swarm of devices, some manned, which probably does reflect the future of warfare. There are also humanoid soldiers in motorcycle helmet armor that are never really explained. Turns out Krall is after the little trinket offered to the terrier people in the first scene, as it is part of a super weapon created by the extinct race that used to live on this planet, and Kalara was sent to lure the Enterprise to bring it to him.

Anyway, there is a big fight as the ship is crashing and Kirk gets the weapon away from Krall and hides it with an alien member of his crew. Then the rest of the crew gets scattered as most of them eject in life pods that are collected by Krall’s ships, with the exception of three: Kirk and Chekov, Spock and McCoy and Scotty.

Scotty is the first to run into Jaylah, a super model who has escaped Krall and now lives in an old starship called the USS Franklin that was lost hundreds of years ago but somehow ended up on this planet. She hides it with cloaking technology that makes it invisible. Pretty soon the gang’s all back together and they hatch a plan to rescue the remaining crew.

So, it turns out that Krall is Balthazar Edison, the captain of the Franklin. He was a soldier who got pissed off when the Federation was formed as a peaceful organization and not one bent on war. Got it? His ship crashed on the planet and he’s lived so long ’cause he found vampire technology that lets him suck out the life force of other living things, although it alters his appearance to sort of match the being on which he is feeding. Kalara and a man named Manas are the only three survivors of the ship, although Kalara is killed when she goes after Kirk and Chekov among the wreckage of the Enterprise, and Manas is presented as kind of the “heavy” (he killed Jaylah’s father) although he really isn’t developed as a character (surprise, surprise).

Anyway, Krall eventually gets the piece of the weapon he needs by threatening to feed on Sulu (turns out the crew member Kirk gave it to has an Alien face hugger on the back of her head in which she hid it) and when assembled it turns into a hand-held “swarm” producer that destroys living matter. The plan is to nip on over to the Yorktown, destroy all the people and use the technology of the base to wage war.

Got it?

So, where to begin. Krall says he’s been searching all over the galaxy for the weapon, but it isn’t apparent that he’s left the planet. Jaylah is hiding the Franklin from him, but wouldn’t he know it was there? Hard to forget the ship you used to captain. He also is a super hacker and has used his hundreds of years old credentials to tap into the Federation network (from inside a highly active nebula) where he can do things like read Kirk’s private captain’s log.

(sigh)

Oh, so once Krall decides to go off to destroy the Yorktown, our heroes manage to get the Franklin back into space and quickly (and safely) navigate back out through the nebula (that only the Enterprise could do in the beginning of the movie, remember?) in time to beat the swarm (by blasting the Beastie Boys “Sabotage” at the alien ships, of course) and save the day.

Oh, there are some fight scenes, Kirk gets to ride on a motorcycle, and once the whole thing is over that new ship under construction becomes the next Enterprise.

Sheesh, what a stinker.

I mentioned there were two cool things. The second was a brief appearance by Shohreh Aghdashloo as Commodore Paris, a high ranking member of the Federation command. There is no mistaking that voice, and her talents are better used in The Expanse series.

I’m sure the fan boys will find something to like about this movie, and some of the people I went with did just that, but while I don’t exactly lament the loss of two hours of my life, I won’t be watching it again.

Review: Sarah Jarosz at Hall River Ballroom

Once in a generation a voice comes along that is so pure that it goes in your ears, straight through your brain and to the bottom of your soul.

Sarah Jarosz is one such voice.

Sarah Jarosz Tickets

Several weeks ago I had the television tuned to our local PBS station, WUNC. They were showing episode 5 of the Transatlantic Sessions. We weren’t really paying attention, it was more like background noise, but then Sarah came on with her song “Annabelle Lee”. We just had to stop what we were doing and listen. Andrea was the first to comment on her voice.

I went out and bought her second album Follow Me Down which has that song and by the end of the day I owned everything of hers I could buy on-line. I also learned that her latest album Undercurrent would be coming out soon. In the process I saw that she was coming to perform locally at the Hall River Ballroom in Saxapahaw, NC, which is about 10 miles from the farm. A steal at $20 a ticket, we made plans to go.

I had never been to the Hall River Ballroom but I had heard good things. They were all true, but despite that I doubt I’ll go back. More on that in a rant later.

The show was sold out. There is a program on WUNC radio called “Back Porch Music” that focuses on American “roots” music. It has quite a following so my guess is that a lot of the people there learned about Jarosz and the concert from that show.

While crowded and hot, it wasn’t stifling, and I was pleasantly surprised at the acoustics in the Ballroom. They are excellent, and probably the best of any of the local music venues I’ve visited.

The opening act was Scott Miller.

Scott Miller

I had never heard of him before, but he did a good job of warming up the crowd. His music contained a lot of political commentary and I agreed with most of the sentiments. According to Wikipedia, he lives near Staunton, Virginia, which is really close to the farm of a friend of mine in nearby Stuarts Draft. It was pretty much just him and his guitar, and I need to find the time to check out more of his music.

Sarah Jarosz

Jarosz came on stage right at 9pm as part of a trio featuring Jedd Hughes on guitar (and backup vocals) and Jeff Picker on upright bass.

This band was tight.

The first pleasant surprise was that not only is Jarosz an amazing singer, she’s also an amazing musician. I saw her play five different instruments. Her main instrument was an octave mandolin, which looks like an eight string guitar, but she also played a standard mandolin, acoustic guitar, electric guitar and banjo. I was also very impressed with Hughes and Picker, especially since Hughes is a finger picker like me. I’ve never been able to flat pick since I can’t figure out how to “feel” the instrument to know where the pick is going, but with my fingers I know where the strings are supposed to be (although getting my fingers and the strings to get along is the challenge).

Speaking of playing guitar, I get teased by Andrea for the faces I make while playing, and Jarosz does it too when playing instrumental songs, although not as strangely as I do. I’m also teased for the time I spend tuning, so I had to laugh when she told a story about wishing that, on your deathbed, you get back all that time.

A lot of the songs were off her new album, which was to be expected, but she hit all of my favorites, including the aforementioned “Anabelle Lee” as well as “Run Away“.

I had been told that she was not going to do any covers, which was a shame since I started to fall in love with her music when she covered Dylan’s “Ring Them Bells“. It is one of my least favorite Dylan tunes, but in her hands it turns into something magical and uplifting. So the next pleasant surprise was that she did play it.

The set was long, about 90 minutes, and she managed a great flow which sometimes was just her and an instrument, or her and either Hughes or Picker, although for most of it they were a trio. There was a great little medley of Tim O’Brien instrumental songs with just bass and mandolin that really showed off their skills (Tim O’Brien tunes aren’t the easiest to play).

Toward the end of the show she mentioned they would be at the “merch booth” selling CDs and shirts, which reminded me of MC Frontalot’s song “Captains of Industry” (although if you click that link note that Front is a totally different genre of music). I had to fly out early the next morning so we didn’t stay around, but I do plan to buy any music the woman produces for the foreseeable future.

So, what went wrong?

It was the crowd, or namely a few specific members of the the crowd.

Seriously people, can we put away the phones for just a little bit? Okay, take a quick picture here and there, but damn it turn off the flash. When she came on stage it was like disco strobes had gone off. The flash ain’t gonna help.

[rant]

But my strongest bile was reserved for drunk guy standing in front of me. He thought it was cool to record entire songs, the problem being that when he’s holding up his phone it makes it hard for everyone else to see, especially since the glow from the handset in a dark room is insanely distracting. To paraphrase Louis CK: she’s right there dude, in Super HD! Live in the moment!

(sigh)

After one such recording he disappeared, only to return with another beer. By this time he’s weaving, so I have to weave too in order to keep a sight line to the stage. Then at the end of the song he shouted out a song title. Oh no! It’s Song Title Shouting Guy! I’m kind of glad that firearms were prohibited, or I might not be able to write this right now.

Luckily he saw some other guy who was by himself enjoying the show so he stumbled over to bother him for a change. Look, I know I’m old and maybe I’m too old for General Admission shows, but damn it I can’t handle the “mobile phones at shows” phenomenon. Back in the day we brought lighters (and, back in the day, some folks brought stuff to light) and that was about it. It’s one of the reasons I don’t go to movies much any more. Yeah, I know, you kids get off my lawn, but still, it ruined what could have been a perfect evening.

I don’t expect Jarosz to be playing places like the Hall River Ballroom in the future. When more people learn about her I think it will be too small, and I expect her career to match if not surpass people like Alison Krauss. But if she does I might just have to brave the mobile phone unwashed masses again, and perhaps they can swing by the farm afterward for some bourbon and branch.

Review: Kurios by Cirque du Soleil

I love Cirque du Soleil. I’ve seen more Cirque shows that I can accurately remember. This weekend I saw Kurios in Atlanta and it is my new favorite.

It is hard to beat Alegria, the first live Cirque performance I ever saw. Andrea and I were living in Santa Rosa, California, and we drove down to San Francisco to see the American premiere of the show. As we were sitting there, we were overcome with a sense of joy and wonder that we had not experienced since we were children, and we later identified the emotion as “delight”. It’s the delight of a young child on Christmas morning, and it comes all too rarely in our adult lives.

Now, I am not saying that Kurios is the best Cirque show ever created. First, I haven’t seen them all, and second, there are individual acts, like the Balance Goddess in Amaluna, that I liked more than any single act in Kurios, but the show taken as a whole was really, really strong.

I want to state that I am not a Cirque “fan boy”. I don’t see everything they produce nor do I think everything they do is golden. When a new show is announced we look at the description, and sometimes a show comes near to us that doesn’t seem that interesting. However, when I learned that this show was to be “steampunk” Cirque, I was in from the start.

It is hard for me to accurately define steampunk. According to Wikipedia it is a subgenre of science fiction, but outside of books it tends to reflect a sense of fascination and wonder often identified with the late Victorian era. It can appeal to certain people involved with technology since that world is becoming more and more virtual (you can almost live in virtual worlds accessed via your “phone” where you interact with your virtual friends and have virtual relationships) and in contrast steampunk is very physical. Before electricity became easily available, most motive energy was derived from steam, which resulted in a very mechanical aesthetic. Think clockwork gears, brass and struts, such as this steampunk keyboard.

Or, if you need another example, just check out the Kurios set:

The stage is circular, like most Cirque shows, although this one had a small raised area along the edge that would often host a number of odd devices and people that would travel along its track. In the back were two large clockwork towers, and as the show started the center stage was dominated by a large chair with various devices hanging off of it. Like the shows I’ve seen before, it would start off with various characters wandering through the audience. One was a mystical turbaned man with a large sphere sticking out of the turban. Various images were projected on the sphere and occasionally he would stop in front of an audience member, touch his temple and the images would change as if he was seeing the person’s future or dreams.

The first main character we are introduced to is the Seeker – a man with white, unkempt hair in a lab coat. He wandered around the set playing with the various devices, and he was assisted by a number of clockwork “kurios” would would help clean the lab, ride a bicycle to generate power, etc. Cirque shows usually start off this way to allow for stragglers to get to their seats. Another Cirque tradition is a clown in the role of Master of Ceremonies, this time played by Facundo Gimenez channeling a half-Italian, half-Spanish character who goes through the usual introduction involving exits, phones and the prohibition against photography.

The show kicks off properly by a parade by the band and the introduction of a whole group of characters, all in period dress. I liked the music in Kurios more than the last few performances I’ve seen and I loved how they integrated it into the show – in the main opening number the percussionists use a table, themselves and pretty much everything else as instruments.

We also get to meet the other main characters. There is Nico the Accordion Man whose clothing contains hundreds of folds that can make him look tall or short. Klara wears a metallic hoop skirt that acts as an antenna so that she can receive invisible signals. The most imposing character is Mr. Microcosmos, whose body is made up of a huge sphere that looks like a Bathysphere used for exploring the sea, although he also appears in the opening number as the front of a large train that expels many other members of the cast. It is out of this sphere that one of the best surprises of all pops out: Mini Lili is played by Antanina Satsura is 3.2 feet tall and weight 39 pounds. She is a perfectly proportioned little person who provides a counterpoint to the size of Mr. Microcosmos. At one point Mr. Microcosmos is on stage in a much larger device that opens up to reveal Mini Lili’s parlour, complete with wingback chair and chandelier, where she sits making a phone call.

What I loved about Kurios was this level of detail. They really carry the theme throughout the show. Outside of the Bathysphere, there are a lot of references to sea life. There is a contortion act done on the back of a huge mechanical hand where the performers wear these sea-life inspired costumes that work really well in the piece, and the second half opens with a trampoline aerial performance that also invokes the sea in the form of jumping fish. It didn’t take me long to find a scholarly reference that the Victorians were very much interested in things like sea life, as this was the first time that the technology existed to start exploring that part of our planet.

Which brings me to the only miss of the night: the invisible circus. A large round elevated stage is rolled out to the front and the clown played by Gimenez describes various acts being performed by “invisible” players, including a man riding a unicycle on a high wire, a lion taming act and even a high dive into a pool filled with three inches of water. Like a mechanical flea circus, you see various things move and even see the splash when the invisible diver lands, but I found the whole act strained and not funny.

I was so jaded by the bit that when Gimenez led a woman from the audience on stage for a mime performance I was ready for the same uncomfortable feeling. The act was him pretending to be on a date, and in the set up you understand he has both a bird and a cat as pets. He answers the “door” and leads her to a couch where he mimes some of the hesitation that can come from a first date. To alleviate this he goes off in search of drinks, but then reappears as the bird. The lady from the audience did a great job of playing along and I was starting to warm to the bit, when the bird is eaten by the cat (also played by Després) who then hops up on the couch to investigate the lady.

As a cat owner, what followed was one of the most talented and hilarious pantomimes of the behavior of a cat I’ve ever seen. I was crying I was laughing so hard. Thus, all is forgiven.

I’m not going to go through and describe all of the acts as a) I didn’t take notes and b) you can find it elsewhere, but what makes this my favorite show was how well it all integrated into the theme. It was like they took it to the next level. For example, most Cirque shows have a hand-balancing act. The performer comes out and slowly builds a tower on which they will do various feats of balancing. This one started out as a dinner party hosted by Klara and attended by some of the other characters, including the turbaned mystic from the beginning of the show. At one point he levitates a candelabra, but it won’t come down. So another guest starts stacking chairs to get high enough to retrieve it.

As the tower gets higher and higher, the lights go on in the catwalk above the stage where a duplicate dinner party is revealed, only this one is upside down. They too build a tower but this one heads down toward the stage. While the hand-balancing act was entertaining on its own, it was this extra level of theatricality that made me love this show.

My overall favorite act was one called Rola Bola. A man in a aviator’s costume comes out and does a balancing act on a small platform on top of a ball. Good, but I’d seen that before. Then he builds up a small stack of acrylic cylinders and boards, and he separates them with a smaller metallic cylinder on its side. Again, I had seen something like that before. It wasn’t until he added a second metallic cylinder, perpendicular to the first, that I started to think “wow”. Now there are at least two axes of motion, and when the whole thing was raised into the air I knew I was in for something special.

Not only did he balance on this contraption, he took of his jacket and contorted metal loops around his body, all while remaining balanced. He ended that part of the act by rotating the whole thing 360 degrees. Truly impressive.

He followed that up by adding a third metal cylinder and another stack of objects that at this point was so high he had to use a little pole to get on top of it. Once again elevated, he was able to remain balanced with these three plus axes of motion, although there was little room left for acrobatics.

Is Kurios perfect? No, I saw a few mistakes at Saturday night’s Atlanta show and the invisible circus bit really could be dropped, but overall it is one of the the strongest Cirque shows in recent memory and I might even have to see it again.

It’s in Atlanta until the beginning of May, when it moves on to Boston, DC. New York and Miami. If you can make I highly recommend you get a ticket. You won’t be disappointed.