Obscurity Knocks

Earnest, empathetic, industrious, unpretentious, gay Virgo in Milwaukee with a great life, amazing friends, and a wonderful family.

Thursday, July 28, 2011

After the Victorians: The Decline of Britain in the World

I read "After the Victorians: The Decline of Britain in the World" by A. N. Wilson. The book deals with British history from the death of Queen Victoria in 1901 to the accession of Queen Elizabeth II in 1952. As is the case in his other books that I've read, Wilson paints a vivid picture of people and events. His ability to describe in detail a scene or event makes the book interesting. There's no question that Wilson is a truly amazing writer and someone with an exceptional intellect. He uses irony, cynicism, and cutting wit throughout, making the book more compelling. He's particularly adept at highlighting the foibles and errors of elected officials across the political spectrum.

As I've noted about other books by Wilson, some of the subject he covers aren't overly familiar and could use additional context for a reader in the USA. And I say this as someone who took two graduate courses on British history in the 19th and 20th centuries.

This book is particularly relevant for the USA now. Just as Britain was eclipsed by the United States in the 20th century, the USA may be eclipsed by China in the 21st century. As such, Wilson's account of how and why Britain declined is well worth studying.

7 of 10.

Saturday, May 07, 2011

Half marathons I've run

This morning I ran the Wisconsin Half Marathon in Kenosha. I've aspired to break 90 minutes (1 hour, 30 minutes) in a half marathon, and I did it today, finishing in 1 hour, 29 minutes. Breaking 1:30 in a half marathon is a fairly decent accomplishment in running, and I wasn't sure if I could do it. The weather was ideal for running in Kenosha this morning with temperatures in the low 50s, not much wind, and partly cloudy skies. I felt really good for the first 12 miles, and needed to dig deep in the last mile to come in under 90 minutes. All in all, it was a great day.

Half marathons I've run in the past three years:
1. Wisconsin Half Marathon (Kenosha), 2011. 1 hour, 29 minutes.
2. South Shore Half Marathon (Milwaukee), 2011. 1 hour, 32 minutes.
3. Badgerland Striders Half Marathon (Milwaukee), 2011. 1 hour, 33 minutes.
4. Wisconsin Half Marathon (Kenosha), 2010. 1 hour, 34 minutes.
5. South Shore Half Marathon (Milwaukee), 2010. 1 hour, 35 minutes.
6. Lake Geneva Half Marathon, 2009. 1 hour, 41 minutes.
7. Wisconsin Half Marathon (Kenosha), 2009. 1 hour, 37 minutes.

Marathons I've run

Marathons I've run:
1. San Francisco Marathon, 2005. 4 hours, 14 minutes.
2. Milwaukee Lakefront Marathon, 2005. 3 hours, 37 minutes.
3. Milwaukee Lakefront Marathon, 2006. 3 hours, 33 minutes.
4. Milwaukee Lakefront Marathon, 2007. 3 hours, 32 minutes.
5. Milwaukee Lakefront Marathon, 2008. 3 hours, 21 minutes.
6. Milwaukee Lakefront Marathon, 2009. 3 hours, 31 minutes.
7. Milwaukee Lakefront Marathon, 2010. 3 hours, 19 minutes.

Next up: Milwaukee again with Dave (my brother), Andy (cousin), Lindsay (Andy's wife), Brian (cousin), and Neil.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

'Reading Jackie' and 'Jackie as Editor'

In 1997 I wrote my master's thesis on the historical memory of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, so I was thrilled with the recent publication of two books about Jackie's career as a book editor: "Reading Jackie: Her Autobiography in Books" by William Kuhn and "Jackie as Editor: The Literary Life of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis" by Greg Lawrence. This article from the New York Times provides better context than I could. Both books are very well done. Most importantly, both Kuhn and Lawrence add substantially to this essential portion of Jackie's life. Most biographies of Jackie up until the publication of these two books focus on her time as First Lady and as Aristotle Onassis's husband, treating her career as an afterthought. Jackie was First Lady for two years and 10 months. That time must be an essential part of her biography. She was married to Aristotle Onassis for less than seven years (1968-1975). She was a book editor for almost 18 years, longer than either of her marriages. That is why it's so unfortunate that biographies of Jackie up until now (see books on Jackie by Sarah Bradford, C. David Heymann, Christopher Anderson, Edward Klein, Barbara Leaming, Jay Mulvaney, Sally Bedell Smith, Wayne Koestenbaum, etc.) treat the period from 1975 to 1994 so shabbily. Until now, most writers about Jackie mention her career as an editor, but focus primarily on her relationship with diamond merchant Maurice Tempelsman, her role as mother and grandmother, and her work preserving and enhancing the legacy of President Kennedy as more important than her career. It's as if these talented authors and the public refused to see her as anything more than primarily the widow of John F. Kennedy (the graceful and grieving widow of the slain President) and secondarily the widow of Aristotle Onassis (rich society woman who went on incredibly shopping sprees). Hence the focus on Tempelsman, who was indeed important in the 1975-1994 period, but where Kuhn and Lawrence break new ground is demonstrating the importance and legitimacy of her career as a book editor. Finally Jackie's life wasn't focused on her husband. As both Kuhn and Lawrence capably demonstrate, Jackie was a talented and hard-working editor, starting out green and inexperienced, then growing into the job, and eventually thriving and enjoying well-earned respect from her peers. Perhaps the best evidence of her talent as an editor is the fact that neither Kuhn nor Lawrence were able to find author who worked with her who criticized her skills as an editor. She cared deeply for her authors and their books. She was involved in line editing, design, publicity, and shepherding authors through the writing, editing, and publication of their books. Both Kuhn and Lawrence provide a list of the books that Jackie edited throughout her career and relate interviews with authors and colleagues at Viking and Doubleday.

Lawrence writes the more conventional book that is arranged chronologically. He worked with Jackie as the co-writer of the ballerina Gelsey Kirkland's autobiography "Dancing on My Grave." Lawrence does an excellent job of advancing knowledge of Jackie's considerable talents and success as an editor. "Frank Rich writing in 'The New York Times' lamented that the woman Jackie was remained a mystery, inadequately eulogized by the mantralike repetition of four words: 'grace, dignity, style, class.' The image of Jackie crouching on the floor surrounded by manuscript pages never appeared in the media coverage [of her death], which ultimately yielded to a dazzling kaleidoscope drawn from other chapters of her life" (Lawrence 270). This is a vitally important point made by Lawrence. Indeed, in my M.A. thesis, I did a statistical analysis of the words used to describe Jackie at the time of her death in May 1994, and the four he mentions, grace, dignity, style, and class, were at the top of the list in my analysis. Lawrence's book skimps on photos, and aesthetically doesn't hold a candle to Kuhn's.

Kuhn addresses Jackie's career more thematically and less chronologically. His use of photographs is very much in line with the books that Jackie herself edited, and the many photos help him tell the story. Kuhn's primary innovation is that he focuses on the books Jackie edited and what these books tell us about her. Jackie never wrote her memoirs, and when asked about doing so, she always indicated that she'd rather live her life than focus on the past, which is understandable given the intense grief she suffered in the public eye and the fact that from 1960 until her death, her life was intensely chronicled and photographed. Kuhn is taking a big chance and making a leap of faith in pursuing this method. In doing so, he has to use the facts to make his case, but he's ultimately going from facts to interpretation when he writes about what the books she edited say about her. That is what makes Kuhn's book ultimately more interesting and rewarding than Lawrence's, even though Lawrence's book probably has more new Jackie anecdotes. Some may not appreciate or agree with Kuhn's drawing from Jackie's publishing list as her unwritten autobiography, but I think that he strikes gold with this way of proceeding. Without going too far, Kuhn helps the reader understand Jackie's views on many topics, among them love, marriage, work, the visual and performing arts, beauty, and travel. Yes, Kuhn risks criticism of his interpretation, but in taking the line he does, he makes the more important contribution to the historiography of Jacqueline Kenned Onassis.

As a huge and longtime fan of Jackie, I'm grateful to both Lawrence and Kuhn for telling this previously untold part of her life and for the new insights they both give us into the life of this incredibly fascinating woman who played a significant part in American history.

"Reading Jackie:" 10 of 10.
"Jackie as Editor:" 9 of 10.

The Victorians

Having grown rather fond of A. N. Wilson's highly entertaining writing in "Our Times: The Age of Elizabeth II" and in the book mentioned immediately below, I read what is probably his best-reviewed book, "The Victorians." It's not a standard history of the Victorian era (1837-1901), but rather visits into particular people and issues from the time arranged more-or-less chronologically. I appreciated how one of Wilson's primary aims is to point out the differences between Victorian society and culture and our 21st century culture. This is effective and most appreciated since most people lack the historical knowledge to appreciate the differences between then and now. This 760 page book covers Darwin, Marx, the zenith of the age of aristocracy, Palmerston, Disraeli, Gladstone, colonialism, and seemingly everything that happened in Britain during Victoria's reign. In graduate school, I took a readings course in 19th century Britain, and in spite of that, I had trouble putting certain events in context. For example, Wilson never effectively places the Crimean War in context of why it happened and what the consequences were for Britain and Europe. Yet overall the book is a fascinating look into the people and events that Wilson has selected as the most interesting to write about during the period. While he clearly admires some of the politicians, particularly Disraeli, he's also candid about the terrible conditions faced by the working class. Wilson is most effective in putting you in the time and place with memorable anecdotes, and that's probably why I enjoy reading his books since that anecdotal aspect of history has always been my favorite. 8 of 10.

The Rise and Fall of the House of Windsor

Finding A. N. Wilson's writing interesting, I read "The Rise and Fall of the House of Windsor," a volume he published in 1993. 1993 was the year after the Queen's annus horribilus when the marriages of three of her four children collapsed publicly; Windsor Castle, the residence she considers as her home, burned in a raging fire; and she agreed to pay income tax on her private fortune. Wilson is always a smart and entertaining writer. Not all of his claims pass the smell test, but he's still a highly fun read. His positions are very clear: Prince Charles isn't qualified to be King because he meddles in politics outside of what is constitutionally permissible, and the Royal Family needs to be boring. Wilson is provocative and asks some interesting questions, many of which still hold up today, some 18 years after the book's publication. He does rise above the usual tawdry gossip and lays out some meritorious constitutional questions. Wilson recognizes the value of a constitutional monarchy. 7 of 10.

Life With The Queen

Brian Hoey is a fairly prolific biographer of the Queen and the Royal Family, so I thought I'd try "Life With The Queen." Unfortunately, the book is pretty much a rehash of his prior books, "Her Majesty: Fifty Regal Years," and "At Home With The Queen." There's really no new information in this book, which was disappointing. It appears to be something that Hoey and his publisher threw together that didn't require much effort. I've enjoyed Hoey's previous books, but this one was lazy. 4 of 10.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

The Help

Kathryn Stockett's "The Help" is definitely the best book that I've read in a long time. I know that I'm late to this party, as I've heard quite a few friends, co-workers, and acquaintances talking about this book over the past year or so. I finally decided to read it based on a number of positive recommendations, and I'm glad that I did. It was one of those rare books that I didn't want to put down, and I didn't want it to end. "The Help" centers around African American maids in Jackson, Mississippi in the early 1960s and the white women they work for. Stockett does a spectacular job of creating real, vivid, human characters. Aibileen and Minnie, two of the maids, are memorable and delightful characters. They're people you wish that you knew. Of course, there' s a villain, and her name is Hilly, the evil, racist, bossy, powerful white woman who heads up the Jackson Junior League. Stockett's creative and original story details what life was like only 50 years ago in the segregated South, and sheds light on the complex relationships between African American maids and their white employers. It's one thing to study the civil rights movement and read about the events that helped everyone, including African Americans, receive their Constitutionally guaranteed civil rights. It's another to hear about real people and what they went through. While fiction, the stories of Aibileen, Minnie, and the other maids personalize in a vivid manner what life was like in the Deep South for African Americans not that long ago. Similarly, Hilly, Elisabeth, and the other white women give readers an idea of the deep racism held by white people during that time. Stockett effectively portrays the contradiction that the maids effectively raised the white children, but could not use the same bathroom as their white employers. Skeeter, a white woman who is a recent college graduate, has had enough of the immoral racism of her peers, and she sets out to learn and share the stories of the maids. The story is compelling and well told.

For me, "The Help" is in a similar genre as "To Kill a Mockingbird," and I mean that as high praise. A wonderful portrayal of humanity. 10 of 10.


Jane Austen's "Pride and Prejudice" is one of my favorite books. 10 of 10. "Sense and Sensibility" is also a great read. So I thought that I'd try "Emma." To say that for me "Emma" pales in comparison to "Pride and Prejudice" is a huge understatement. For as much as I love "Pride and Prejudice," I didn't care for "Emma." I found every character in the book, particularly Emma herself, Mr. George Knightley, Frank Churchill, Jane Fairfax, Mr. Woodhouse, Harriet Smith - the whole lot was irritating. Emma is a spoiled and bossy brat who always gets her way. And she's rewarded with a kind, albeit boring, husband at the end of the book in spite of her impetuous selfishness.

And don't accuse me of being anti-Jane Austen. I think she's great in "Pride and Prejudice" and in "Sense and Sensibility." But Emma was terrible. I was incredibly glad to finally finish reading this seemingly never ending novel. 2 of 10.

The Longest Trip Home

My mom and my brother read "The Longest Trip Home" by John Grogan. I wanted to avoid the book, but they convined me to read it. The memoir of Grogan's childhood in white suburban Detroit is extremely maudlin, nostalgic, and self-indulgent. There's a lot about Grogan's boyhood pranks with his friends, his discovery of girls and first romances, and his relationship with his parents. But I was interested since one of the themes of the book is Grogan's relationship with Roman Catholicism, how he broke away from the Catholic Church, and how his extremely Catholic (with a capital C) parents dealt with that. I enjoyed this aspect of the book since I was raised Catholic, but left that faith more than five years ago. Another part of the book that had merit was how Grogan dealt with his father's cancer and his mother's dementia. I found this aspect touching and well-done. Overall, though, it wasn't a favorite. 5 of 10.

Netflix streaming update

I wrote about the difficulties I've been having with Netflix streaming in this post. Since that time I've done quite a bit of troubleshooting. Netflix and Time Warner both agree that the problem is with my RoadRunner Internet service. Both Netflix and Time Warner acknowledge that the Mbps of my RoadRunner looks like a roller coaster. Sometimes it's high (in excess of 23 Mbps), and at other times it's low (1.5 Mbps). There are no difficulties with my TV, Blu-Ray player, wireless router, or with Netflix; the problem is with Time Warner's RoadRunner. TimeWarner re-set my Internet service, but that didn't do anything. Now they want me to bring in my modem, which is circa 2004, and get a newer version. Hopefully that will do the trick, but I'm not optimistic. We'll see what happens with the new modem.

White House Staff: It Gets Better

What a great video from members of the White House staff. These men and women are fine role models. I wish that there had been role models such as this when I was young. I'm glad that young people today can see role models like these great people. It gets better!

I like to make passes at guys who wear glasses

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Well, hello

Monday, December 13, 2010

Being 37

Being 37 means that you spend more time in doctor and dentist offices than you did in your 20s. Mikel wrote about this reality on his blog.

I had six cavities that were drilled and filled when I was young. Back then dentists used silver amalgam fillings that contained mercury, which can have pretty bad side effects if those fillings break down and the mercury gets into your system. My dentist (she's been my dentist since 1988 by the way) told me that she wanted to replace the silver amalgam fillings with tooth colored resin. I had the last two silver amalgam fillings replaced with new tooth colored resin on Friday. So now that's done.

This morning I went to my internal medicine/primary care doctor for my annual physical, which I haven't had done in about 20 months. The exam and my labs were all fine, so that was good news to receive.

One minor issue: I pointed out a spot on my scalp that has seemed kind of strange the past three months. With skin as fair (read: pale) as mine, I've learned that I need to be vigilant about any unusual freckles or other unusual things on my skin, since I'm in a high risk group for skin cancer with my red hair, fair skin, and freckles. The doctor said that it was an actinic keratosis, which basically means an unusual patch of skin that could, over time, develop into skin cancer. The doctor used liquid nitrogen to freeze those skin cells, causing them to die, and that takes care of the problem. Another word for the procedure they did is cryotherapy, and it's incredibly easy and noninvasive, even if it's temporarily uncomfortable. The liquid nitrogen freezing is easy compared to something that needs to be cut off, in which case a dermatologist has to physically cut the nevus (freckle) off, and they usually have it biopsied to make certain it's not cancerous. I've had that done a couple of times, as well. The actual cutting isn't a big deal, either, but the freezing is easier.

I recommend a visit to the dermatologist for anyone with a concern about an ABCDE on their skin.

Next up: annual eye exam in April. Annual dermatologist visit late spring/early summer.

Monday, November 29, 2010

Netlifx streaming: not all it's cracked up to be

An open letter to Netflix CEO Mr. Reed Hastings and Time Warner CEO Mr. Jeffrey L. Bewkes:

Mr. Reed Hastings, CEO, Netflix
Mr. Jeffrey L. Bewkes, CEO, Time Warner

Dear Mr. Hastings and Mr. Bewkes:

I am a Netflix subscriber and I also have Time Warner's Road Runner high speed Internet service. Recently Netflix announced a price increase. I was on the three DVDs at a time plan from Netflix. Since that plan is increasing from $16.99 to $19.99 per month, I switched to the two DVDs at a time plan which recently increased from $13.99 to $14.99 per month. I understand that Mr. Hastings and Netflix want to move their customers from DVDs to Internet streaming. Doing so allows Netflix to reduce what it pays in mailing costs to the US Postal Service. I understand and appreciate that someday Netflix will likely be all streaming and no DVDs. Although Netflix has a long way to go before accomplishing this goal since less than one-third of my Netflix queue is available on streaming, hence my decision to be on the two DVDs at a time plan.

Since I want to move forward with technology, this weekend I bought a Sony Blu-Ray player (BDPS570) with Wi-Fi. The sales associate at Best Buy explained that this Blu-Ray player would allow me to watch streaming Netflix on my Sony Bravia TV in HD. Great, I thought.

I got everything hooked up without any trouble. I was excited to watch my first Netflix streaming movie. I selected "The Rape of Europa," a documentary about how the Nazis looted and destroyed a significant amount of the world's art in the 1930s and 1940s. The movie started playing on my TV, and I was thrilled with the sharp and bright HD picture. The sound was good, as well. But then the difficulties began. The documentary is 1 hour and 56 minutes in length. It stopped playing approximately 50 times to buffer. Instead of taking 1 hour and 56 minutes to watch, it took me 2 hours and 21 minutes, meaning that the many, many stops for buffering totalled a mind-numbing 25 minutes. Mr. Hastings, if this is streaming Netflix, I'm not interested. Give me the DVD where I don't have to be constantly wondering when the movie is going to stop for buffering. I'll go insane if this is how I have to watch movies.

I wondered if my Road Runner high speed Internet connection was inadequate for Netflix streaming. I tested the speed twice using speedtest.net, and my results were 22.83 Mbps and 25.85 Mbps, which the site said was average. Perhaps my difficulty is with Time Warner's Road Runner; I don't know. If it is, then I'd respectfully request that Time Warner and Mr. Bewkes provide me with improved Road Runner service. I live in the City of Milwaukee. I acknowledge that I don't live in Palo Alto, but Milwaukee is a fairly major city and should have truly high speed Internet service. By way of comparison, my work computer tested at 92 Mbps, but that's a very good service.

However, I think that the problem lies with Netflix. I found this article entitled "How Netflix is Failing You," indicating that I'm hardly the only person experiencing this problem with buffering. My question for Netflix is this: Why are you trying to move your customers to Internet streaming when your Internet streaming service is so inadequate? Shouldn't you have the proper infrastructure in place before you increase your prices to move people to streaming? Isn't there a way that when I select a movie, all the buffering could take place before the movie starts playing, so that once the movie starts playing it won't stop?

Until Netflix can get its act together, I don't plan on using the streaming service since it's so maddeningly frustrating with the constant buffering.

I'd welcome hearing from Mr. Hastings and Mr. Bewkes and/or their associates.

Steve F.

Jake Gyllenhaal

I haven't seen "Love and Other Drugs" yet, but I'm definitely a fan of Jake Gyllenhaal.