2014

Watching The Family Stone

The Family StoneI was looking forward to seeing “The Family Stone” in December 2005, a Christmas comedy movie with an all-star cast that the Wall Street Journal slammed as the ultimate Hollywood liberal family fantasy. The uptight son and his uptight girlfriend leave New York City behind to visit his laid back family in snowy Connecticut. A downhill sled ride into hilarity as this blended family fails to accept the newcomer. But a dark current lurked underneath the hilarity, as the mother has terminal breast cancer. Being the second Christmas without my mother after she died from breast cancer, I wasn’t prepared for this and wept through the end credits.

I haven’t tried to watch “The Family Stone” until this year, the tenth anniversary of my mother’s death. I bought a copy on iTunes to see if I could overcome the emotional pain that I associated with the movie. I could not, not then. Between Thanksgiving Day and Christmas Day, which was the second Christmas without my father since he died from throat cancer, I saw the movie a half-dozen times. The emotional pain lessens with each watching. I can now enjoy the humor without being overwhelmed by the sorrow.

The thing that disturbed me about the movie was how I missed all the warning signs in real life.

Several scenes hinted at the mother’s illness in the movie. The pregnant daughter lies down next to her napping mother, who wakes up and asks her who else knows. The laid back son gets his father to admit that something was wrong and wasn’t planning to tell the family until after the holidays. The mother unbuttons her nightgown to reveal a flat chest with a long scar tissue and her husband placing a hand on where a breast once belongs. And, on Christmas morning, the mother tells the uptight son that getting married won’t change the fact that she was sick.

With my parents living in Sacramento after they retired, I saw my mother only three or four times a year when I took Amtrak from Silicon Valley to visit them. Like the mother in the movie, my mother had a waxy complexion that I always associated with old age. When my father called the family together to say goodbye to her on his birthday in March 2004, my mother was nothing but skin and bones on the living room day bed. She died three days later.

Despite seeing him more often after my mother died, I wasn’t aware that he was dying from throat cancer. The only hint that something was wrong was an out-of-the-blue phone call from his older sister about morphine pills, which I knew about but didn’t realize that morphine was a family code word for terminal cancer. On the eighth anniversary of my mother’s death in March 2012, I drove up to Sacramento to discover that my father was nothing but skin and bones. He died six weeks later.

Like the younger adult children in the movie, I was the last one to find out about his illness and his death. Only time will lessen the emotional pain of losing a parent.

A Lightning-Struck Christmas Tree

After I joined the campus ministry and moved into a five-bedroom Victorian in downtown San Jose with 11 brothers in 1992, my first Christmas away from my family was very special. Being brothers of one spirit, we were too poor to buy a Christmas tree. (That didn’t prevent them from charging $500 USD in long distance phone calls and fighting over who owed what on the 20-page bill each month.) Besides, no one had any Christmas decorations to put on a tree. One brother, a graphic artist, found a creative solution to our dilemma.

This brother drove up to the Santa Cruz Mountains above Silicon Valley to look for a Christmas tree. There are several Christmas tree farms that will let you cut down a tree, but I think you need to bring your own ax or saw to cut with. He went up there with nothing but a prayer. Several hours later he drove back with a tree tied to the top of his station wagon.  He found it on the ground next to a  90-foot-tall tree struck by lightning in a recent storm that was missing its tree top.

Using a borrowed hack saw to cut off the charred stump and setting up an old cast-iron pot as a tree stand, he positioned the seven-foot-tall tree in the living room (the ceiling was ten-foot-tall). It was the ugliest Christmas tree I ever saw. The brothers and sisters had serious doubts about it being a Christmas tree. The wide boughs could each hold enough snow to wallop someone below if they were in the wrong place at the wrong time.

As for Christmas decorations, he emptied out the kitchen of all the pots and silverware that we weren’t using to hang on the tree with yarn and clear tape. Weird as it looked with pots, forks, knives and spoons hanging upside down from the branches like metallic icicles, it looked like a real Christmas tree and became the centerpiece of our white elephant holiday party. Everyone who saw it praised God for the miracle it was.

Since everything we could cook or eat with was hanging on the tree, we didn’t have a single argument over extra dirty dishes in the sink between Thanksgiving Day and New Year’s Day.

Flying High With Orion Spacecraft

Orion Spacecraft SplashdownAs a child growing up in the 1970’s, spaceflight was a big deal. I watched the Apollo 11 moon landing while in utero with my parents a month before I was born. While the moon landings were old news by the time I got into school, the Apollo-Soyuz test flight between America and the Soviet Union, the fateful re-entry of Skylab, and the space shuttle program were future milestones. Spaceflight became routine—and home computers caught my interest—in the 1980’s. With the exception of the Challenger (1986) and Columbia (2003) shuttle disasters, spaceflight was no longer a big deal. With the flawless test flight of the Orion spacecraft to send astronauts to the moon and beyond, perhaps that will change.

Orion wasn’t on my mind at work until I noticed the headline tucked away on a corner of The New York Times website. (Unless something blows up and lives are lost, routine spaceflight will never capture the front page again.) I watched the NASA videos for launch and splashdown of the 4.5-hour mission.

The new spacecraft made a single Low Earth Orbit (LEO), where the space shuttles and the International Space Station travel, before the second stage rocket boosted it into a 3,600-mile high orbit to fly through the Van Allen radiation belt and simulate a 20,000 MPH atmospheric re-entry that blasts the heat shield at 4,000 F degrees. From launch to splashdown, 1,200 sensors sent back telemetry data to help engineers prepare for the next test flight.

As I read the news commentary and review the technical specs of the Delta IV heavy rocket (which normally launches satellites into orbit), I felt like the kid who reviewed the NASA pamphlets on space missions at the local library with hope and excitement. The threat of nuclear annihilation from the Cold War in the 20th century was a good motivation to get off the planet. With the threat of global warming in the 21st century, getting off the planet is still a good idea. The survival of humanity will depend on going into space.

A lot of the focus for the new manned spaceflight is from Earth orbit towards Mars and beyond. (This is where the “deep space” label gets slapped on by commentators, which in my opinion should apply only to space missions beyond the solar system.) What about Venus (second planet from the sun)? Granted, Earth’s sister world isn’t the most inviting place for a manned mission with a sulfuric acid atmosphere hot enough that lead is a liquid. But, like Mount Everest being the tallest peak on Earth, it’s there to visit and closer than Mars.

Blogger Michael J. Battaglia in Scientific American makes a good argument for a flyby visit to Venus: “A circumnavigation of Venus would test our ability to function in deep space, to enter a planet’s gravitational influence, to create robust shielding for the higher radiation at Venus’s relatively close proximity to the sun, to devise zero-g strategies for long-duration flights—all of which would bolster us for an even longer journey to Mars. Besides, for a long-duration mission, we might not want to commit our astronauts to landing on Mars only to find out that they could not walk, their musculature had so degenerated upon arrival. In contrast, the crew of a long Venus round-trip would land not on a faraway planet but back on Earth, where medical attention is readily available if needed.”

Due to ever smaller budgets, NASA will have to compromise mission objectives to get the most bangs for the buck. The next unmanned test flight for Orion to cruise around the moon will be in 2017 or 2018. With the Chinese and the Russians planning missions to the moon, a new space race might make spaceflight more exciting and less routine again.

Verizon Wireless’s Tone-Deaf Commercial

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AEo_aflOlt0

Verizon Wireless has a new commercial with football player AJ Green sporting the new Beats by Dre Solo2 wireless headphones. We see Green pulling up to a reserved parking spot, turns the car engine off, puts on a wired headphone set, nods his head to the music, leaves his car, and doesn’t stop until wired headphone goes flying off his head. Of course, someone else notices this little mistake. Next he’s putting on a wireless headphone, leaving the car and tucking a cellphone into his coat pocket. This commercial was wrong on so many levels.

I had to re-watch the video several times to make sure that Green wasn’t driving the car with headphones on, which is illegal in most states according to the AAA. (The list, interestingly enough, follows the blue-red political split between the Democratic “nanny” states and the Republican “don’t tread on me” states.) Some people just might miss that part of the commercial and assume that driving around with headphones on was okay. A bad example for young people who wear Beats headphones.

The commercial doesn’t show what the wired headphones was plug into inside the car. Since headphone jacks on car radios are nonexistent, and this is a commercial for wireless headphones, the wired headphones were probably plugged into a cellphone.  I can’t imagine anyone putting headphones on, leaving the cellphone inside the car, closing the door on the cord, and walking away until the headphones fall off. That’s just plain stupid.

From the reviews I read online, Beats headphones are terrible. At $299.99 USD, terribly expensive. These headphones have a dedicated following on the hip-hop music scene. I went to my local Best Buy to see what the fuss was about. Listening to the demo music, the Beats were no better or no worse than the ten buck headphones I get for listening at home.

After seeing this commercial, I’ve became aware of people wearing wired Beats headphones: waiting for public transit, riding on bicycles on the streets, and, yes, driving cars on the freeway. Just what we need on California freeways: more tone-deaf idiots.

Forget Episode VII – Batman Vs. Darth Vader

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nj23dwWHukY

If the new Star Wars Episode VI trailer wasn’t your cup of tea, watch “Batman vs. Darth Vader” as the Dark Knight Detective faces off with the Dark Lord of the Sith. Batman infiltrates the Death Star in his spaceship to rescue Superman, disabling stormtroopers like common street thugs, and picking up a lightsaber along the way. Darth Vader tracks down Batman, setting off a battle between the Force (magic) and Gadgets (science). Despite several near death scenes, the outcome was predictable.

Awakening The Star Wars Trailer

I no longer see movie trailers when they come out on the Internet. I’ve seen too many movies over the years that fell short of a well-made trailer.  (Or in the case of “Cloverfield,” a well-made end credits with awesome music that was better than the movie.) If I have a low expectations walking into the theater, the less disappointed I’ll be after seeing the movie. The only exception to this rule is Star Wars, as the first “Episode VII—The Force Awakens” trailer has come out.

When I worked at Accolade/Infogrames/Atari (same company, different owners, multiple personality disorder), my fellow video game testers and I went to see “Wing Commander” (a video game-based movie) in 1999. The “Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace” trailer premiered with that movie. People got up after the trailer was over and left without seeing the movie. As for the movie itself, low expectations made “Wing Commander” almost enjoyable for being so bad.

What does this new trailer tells us about the plot of the next Star Wars movie? Next to nothing.

Although I saw the trailer on the Internet, I’m not going out of my way to read about various plot leaks. (Except for Harrison Ford being injured on the set after the Millennium Falcon door clobbered him.) Since director J.J. Abrams is responsible for re-imaging the Star Trek franchise, he literally threw out the books regarding what to expect with the Star Wars franchise. Anything is possible.

The two parts that I liked the most were X-wings fighters skimming above the water and the Millennium Falcon flying into the air before flying low over sand dunes while under fire from Tie fighters. Unlike the previous six movies, the spacecraft really do blend in with the environment. A promising start for a venerable franchise.

Republican Midterm Victory By The Numbers

Two numbers stand out after the 2014 midterm elections: the largest Republican majority in the House since 1928 (a year before the 1929 stock market crash that ushers in the Great Depression) voted in by the worst voter turnout since 1942 (after America enters World War II). If the past is any indication of the future, this country is in deep trouble for the next two years. But those weren’t the most important numbers. Three numbers about the new Republican majority in the Senate indicates what the midterm elections were really about.

67

Sixty-seven is the number of votes needed to override a presidential veto. The new Republican majority in the Senate has 52 members, which may increase to 54 after several contested elections get settled in the next few months. Unless the Republicans play nice with the Democrats to pick additional votes, they can’t override a presidential veto on their own.

Unfortunately, the Republicans won their new majority by ousting out conservative Democrats from conservative states. They have no one to negotiate with—except themselves. As we have seen over in the House, if the Establishment Republicans and the Tea Party Republicans can’t agree, much less negotiate, over a common agenda, nothing will get done. For some people, doing nothing is a perfectly acceptable state of affairs for Congress.

60

Sixty is the number of votes required to override a Democratic filibuster. The Republicans will have to play nice with the Democrats to pick up extra votes. Or experience the frustrations that they inflicted on the Democrats for the last six years. The Republicans could do away with the filibuster entirely and pass everything on a simple majority vote (51 yeas). However, gutting the minority’s right to hamstring the legislative process is too extreme for the world’s most deliberative body. The Republicans may find themselves in the minority again.

24

Twenty-four is the number of Senate seats that the Republicans will have to defend in 2016. The 2010 anti-incumbent Tea Party will face re-election for the first time as incumbents. Since the 112th Congress has distinguished itself as being the least productive Congress since the “do nothing” 80th Congress of the 1940’s, the incumbents will have few successes to show the voters back home. Expect the Tea Party incumbents to face Tea Party and/or Establishment challengers in the primary elections.

Unless the Republicans learn to C-O-M-P-R-O-M-I-S-E to get things done with President Obama and the Democrats, nothing will change for the next few years. If Hillary Clinton becomes the next president as many people expect, don’t expect the Republican Party to change their demographics to attract a wider voting base. It’ll be eight more years of the do nothing status quo, as the Republican Party match into the dustbin of history.

Post-Halloween Discounted Holiday M&M’s

Harvest Holiday M&M's CandiesBetween Halloween and Thanksgiving Day, I’m on the lookout for discounted bags of milk chocolate Harvest Holiday M&M’s candies at the local CVS store. I never pay full price for holiday-themed M&M’s because the bags are smaller and more expensive than regular M&M’s. The best price I got last year was before Thanksgiving Day with six bags at $0.42 USD each for 90% off. I’m getting off to a good start this year.

The day after Halloween I stopped off at the CVS store nearest to my home (there are at least five stores in a three-mile radius). Not surprisingly, the discount was 50% off and I picked up two bags for the price of one. I came into the same store the following week to find the discount at 75% off. A sudden drop in the discount wasn’t expected for another week. With each bag at a buck each, I bought out the entire stock of milk-chocolate M&M’s (six bags). Unless I find some bags at 90% somewhere else, this is probably my haul until after Christmas.

After I told my friend about the holiday M&M’s, he wanted to get his own haul of discounted M&M’s candies. We went to the CVS store where I got the 90% discount last year. The discount was still 50% two weeks after Halloween (should have been 75%). The milk chocolate M&M’s were long gone. My friend picked up two bags of the white chocolate “candy corn” M&M’s, and a bag of real candy corn. A strange combination.

Despite the Christmas-themed candies hitting the shelves after Halloween, I didn’t see any Christmas M&M’s that shouldn’t be available until after Thanksgiving Day. Unlike last year, I hope the Christmas M&M’s will last beyond mid-December and get restocked before Christmas Day. I can’t get discounted bags of M&M’s if they’re not available after the holiday.

One of the problems I noticed last season (Halloween 2013 to Easter Day 2014) was CVS stocking the next holiday-themed M&M’s after the last candy holiday. Valentine M&M’s after Christmas Day, Easter M&M’s after Valentine’s Day. By the time the actual holiday comes around, the holiday-themed M&M’s are long gone. I hope that’s not the case this season, as I buy M&M’s only after the holidays.

Unlocking The Profit

One of my favorite TV show is CNBC’s “The Profit,” where Marcus Lemonis invests his own money to turnaround failing small businesses. I saw the premier episode while attending the Las Vegas Star Trek convention last year, fell in love with the show, and can’t get enough of it on the Internet. Alas, CNBC has locked down the episodes when the second half of season two started a month ago. Since I’m not a cable subscriber, and the episodes aren’t available on Amazon or iTunes, I had to watch the sneak preview videos, and read the reviews on Previously TV, The Profit Fans, and Tycoon Playbook. A recent episode showed up on Hulu.

Over 40,000 businesses applied to get on “The Profit.” According to an article in Inc Magazine, there’s a fine line between the businesses that Marcus wants to turnaround and the drama that the producer wants to turn into good TV. In short, there are winners and losers. Swanson’s Fish Market was an obvious loser from the get go.

Unusual Product

The businesses that Marcus favors are either products or stores that have the potential to become national brands. As I’m not aware of any national fresh fish markets (the only fish I eat are frozen fish fillets from the supermarket), I couldn’t see him turn this 41-year-old family owned business in Fairfield, CT, into a national brand. With the family name being Swanson, a national fresh fish market and/or prepared food line might get confused with a national frozen food brand despite being in different markets.

Unusual Offer

Marcus discovers that the business is $900,000 USD in the hole despite doing $150,000 USD in monthly sales. The numbers are hard to figure out. Gary, the father, is laid back. Sue, the mother, has checked out of the business. Larissa, the daughter, struggles with the bookkeeping mess she inherited from her mother, and reached out to Marcus to help her family.

Marcus offers $1 million USD to buy the building to pay off the debt and put working capital into the business, giving the family an option to buy the building back at a later date. Since he didn’t request his usual 50% of ownership, I don’t see what his return of investment was unless the building has significant real estate value and/or appreciation. As he stressed in earlier episodes, he doesn’t do real estate play—and this is a real estate play.

Profitable Disasters

This fish market has a fishy history. A fire on Fourth of July 2009 gutted the original store, which was rebuilt for $1 million USD and the insurance company paid out $1.2 million USD. A warehouse fire that same year cost $30,000 USD to rebuild and a $220,000 USD payout from the insurance company. And, later in the episode, a $35,000 USD boat swamped during a hurricane got bought out by the insurance company for $70,000 USD. All that extra money supposedly went back into the business.

Many people on various comment boards believe that the owners have committed insurance fraud, as insurance companies aren’t renowned for generous payouts. Larissa in a special post on the business website disputes that accusation of fraud and how the episode humiliated her family. If anything, the owners were guilty of using the business as a piggy bank for a luxury car, boats and the remodeling of their house.

No surprise that Marcus walked away after he discovers that the building was under foreclosure proceedings. Unlike earlier episodes where circumstances became deal breakers, this episode felt like it got set up to fail from the beginning. Based on the available public records, the production company—and perhaps Marcus—must have known about this before setting up the cameras.

Review – John Wick

john_wickI haven’t heard about Keanu Reeve’s new movie, “John Wick,” until a friend mentioned it.  I knew the basic premise for this revenge flick from watching the trailer: something bad happens, retired assassin comes out of retirement, and everyone dies a cinematic death. The little details, like gold coins buying access to a secret society of professional assassins in New York City, made all the difference.

John Wick (Reeves) bails out of a SUV with a bloody wound to his stomach, staggering away and collapsing to the ground. A cellphone in his hands plays the video of a woman (Bridget Moynahan) at the beach, calls him John and they share a selfie kiss. Forty-eight hours earlier, he’s a distraught husband who lost his wife to breast cancer, buried her in cemetery, and cleaning up an empty house after everyone leaves the wake. A special delivery arrives with one last present from his wife to ease his grieving pain: Daisy, an adorable Beagle puppy.

John takes the dog out for a drive in his souped up 1969 Mustang the next morning, racing up and down the local airstrip to relieve his anguish. Stopping off at the gas station to fill up, he encounters a group of young Russians men. One of them, Iosef (Alfie Allen), takes an interest in the Mustang, insists on buying it and makes a snide remark in Russian after John told him that it wasn’t for sale. John surprises him with his own remark in Russian before driving off. Later that night, Iosef and his friends break into his house to kill the dog and steal the car.

If they have only stolen the car, things would have ended with less bloodshed. But they killed his dog, making the payback very personal. After burying the dog and cleaning up the floor, John takes a sledgehammer into his basement and pounds the concrete floor into pieces. A large case with guns and gold coins reveals the secret past he left behind for marriage to a loving woman.

Who the hell is John Wick?

As the Russian crime boss, Viggo (Michael Nyqvist), explains to his wayward son, John Wick wasn’t just a highly talented assassin but one with the nickname buka (Russian for boogeyman). Iosef, of course, doesn’t believe in the boogeyman. While the father sits before the fireplace and sings the nursery rhyme about misbehaving children being taken by the boogeyman, a squad of his best men takes on the boogeyman. With a disabling body shot and two head shots in a well-executed (pun intended), choreographed sequence, John systematically takes apart his former employer to extract revenge.

Reeves claim to fame was “The Matrix” movies, where slo-mo bullet time got invented for those movies, and too often overused in other movies. I was hoping that this movie would have absolutely no slow-mo bullet time, but one scene used it for hilarious effect just before Iosef meets his inevitable fate. Like “47 Ronin” earlier this year, Reeves gives another fine performance as the reluctant soldier who fights for justice.

The Black-and-White of The 2014 Mac Mini

2014 Mac Mini ExplodedApple’s announcement of the new Mac mini last week was an immediate disappointment for those of us waiting two years for updated hardware. With the level-entry Mac mini corresponding to the lower hardware specs of the level-entry MacBook Air, and, being like the MacBook Air, unable to upgrade the hard drive and memory after purchase, was a deal killer for most folks. Since the CPU fan for my vintage Black MacBook (2006) died this past summer, I need an affordable replacement system. Apple failed to deliver this year, but Other World Computing (OWC) has better options that fit the bill.

OWC sells refurbished Macs and various upgrades to extend the usefulness of each Mac. The cheapest option would be a 17″ iMac (2006) for $149 USD. This is the same generation as my Black MacBook, compatible with my existing hardware (i.e., memory modules, OWC 120GB SSD and external 250GB FireWire drive), and should boot up the SSD in an external closure as if it was yesterday. However, I’ll still be stuck with an unsupported 32-bit CPU that won’t run the newest Mac OS X, Yosemite, which was also announced last week.

The best option is a White MacBook (2010) for $449 USD. The unibody design has a back cover that comes off after removing ten screws, exposing the battery, DVD drive, hard drive, and memory for easy replacement. I’ll be able to pimp out this White MacBook more than I had with the Black MacBook.

  • Battery — The first battery for the Black MacBook lasted six years, and the second battery (manufactured in 2007) lasted two years. The battery for a 2010 laptop will need replacement sooner rather than later. Unfortunately, this item can only be obtained from the Apple Store for $129 USD.
  • DVD Player — OWC sells a data doubler adapter for $35 USD to replace the DVD player with a SATA hard drive or SSD. I’ll install the SSD from the Black MacBook to serve as the primary boot drive. OWC also sells an external optical drive enclosure to continue using the DVD player.
  • Hard Drive — My FireWire drive has two 120GB partitions for backing up the SSD with SuperDuper!, and a 10GB partition as a programming scratch pad. Since the White MacBook doesn’t have a FireWire connector, the internal 250GB hard drive will replace it. As prices for the larger capacity SSDs drop over time, I’ll replace the hard drive.
  • Memory — The White MacBook has 4GB RAM installed, which is fine for another year or two. The 2010 model maxes out at 16GB RAM, twice as much as the 2009 model. OWC sells a pair of 8GB memory modules for $200 USD.

All this expandability in a compact system for slightly more than the 2014 Mac mini with AppleCare and sale taxes included (~$650 USD). I got eight years of useful life out of the Black MacBook. I expect the White MacBook to provide at least four years, perhaps longer with a 64-bit CPU. More bang for the buck.

Farting Around The Moon

[youtube=https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HWR1Qo6e3K4]

If you ever find yourself on the Moon, don’t eat a can of baked beans before suiting up. A rampaging kaiju (Japanese for “strange beast”) might come out its hole, kill your team members and hunt you down after letting loose an errant fart. Never mind that the Moon has no air to transmit the sound of the tooty-fruity outside of a spacesuit. Farting around the Moon can get you killed.