Review – Burn After Reading

Since the Coen brothers directed “Burn After Reading,” I was expecting something in a similar vein to their earlier dark comedy, “The Ladykillers,” about a group of bumbling robbers digging a tunnel from the basement of a black woman’s house into a casino vault next door. While it had some hilarious moments, the cat stole the show. When one of the robbers blasted his finger off, the cat took off with it, and, at the end of movie, dropping the finger from a bridge to a garbage barge passing underneath that the robbers used to dispose of tunnel debris and dead bodies, which sums up the stupidity in the movie.

When CIA analyst Osborne Cox (John Malkovich) gets demoted for an “alleged” drinking problem on the job, he either quits or got fired since no one knows for sure. (Another character remarks about Washington, D.C., “Everyone in this town who quits is actually fired.”) He goes home to tells his wife, Kate (Tilda Swinton), that he’s writing his memior. She thinks he went off on the deep end and consults a divorce attorney because she’s having an affair with his best friend, Harry Pfarrer (George Clooney).

Harry hits the Internet dating scene for serial one-night stands while his wife is away on an extended business trip. He meets Frances (Linda Litzke), a trainer at the Hardbodies Gym, who believes that she needs plastic surgery to find Mr. Right (although she seems respectfully hot for a middle-aged woman). Osborne gets kicked out of his house to live on his boat, and Harry stays with Kate while seeing Frances.

After a compact disc with the memoir and financial records are found in the locker room (accidentally left by the secretary for the divorce attorney), Linda and her co-worker, Chad (Brad Pitt), decides to blackmail Osborne for cash. When that fails, they storm the Russian embassy to get a better deal. The Russians, in turn, informed the CIA, as the information they provided was worthless. As Chad snoops around the Cox house to get more info to give the Russians, he is accidentally shot to death by Harry, who is proud to say that he never shot his gun in 20 years of service for the Treasury Department. Things spiral out of control as paranoia runs rampant.

The movie was dark, if not under lit, and humorless. With the exception of cutting remarks about spouses that only married people in the audience found funny, this wasn’t a funny movie. Even with Brad Pitt playing a total idiot all the time wasn’t that funny most of the time. Was this movie about a CIA screw up that involves married people having affairs, or married people having affairs that the CIA feels obligated to clean up after? The CIA chief (J.K. Simmons) sums up the entire mess as being much ado about nothing, which was the funniest five minutes out of the whole movie.

A Retro Cold War

For students of Cold War political history, the last several weeks has been fascinating. Georgia, the small republic on the coast of the Black Sea, attacked the Russian peacekeepers in South Ossetia to reclaim their break away region on the eve of the 2008 Summer Olympics, where most of the world leaders attended and presumably were too occupied with sports to notice this brazen act. Except the Russians did noticed and responded with a massive show of force that caught the Georgian military off guard. Not surprisingly, the Russian military conducted an exercise the month before for the same scenario that played out. If you wake up the Russian bear, expect big trouble to come down in a hurry.

A lot of political hand wringing ensued. The Georgian president, Mikheil Saakashvili, has expected NATO and the United States to rescue him from the foolishness of his own actions. The Europeans didn’t lift a finger in response, and, perhaps wisely, chose not to admit Georgia into NATO due to the potential border conflicts with Russia. America didn’t lift a finger to help since our military are still stuck in Afghanistan and Iraq, and any potential conflict with Russia could escalate into a nuclear conflict.

President Saakashvili didn’t help his own cause by hurling insults at the Russian leadership, invoking the West losing Poland to Nazi Germany in World War II, and wildly claiming that the Russians were marching on the capital to provoke the West into action. The Russian leadership dished back the insults with equal ferocity, even demanding that a war crimes trial be held at The Hague. The Bush Administration didn’t help when it publicly enabled the Georgian military to get cocky about winning a confrontation with Russia while telling them in private not to provoke the Russians by disregarding the historical sensitivity that Russia has towards threats on its borders.

While the Russian leadership signed the cease-fire agreement brokered by France and Germany, the real action is still happening on the ground with the Russian military neutering the Georgian military. Fear and trembling is being felt along the old borders of the Soviet Union, the West is reconsidering their relationship with the Russians, and the Georgians are wondering where the heck America was in all this. The only people surprised by these events are the ones who don’t learn from history.

If you want to understand the nuttiness of the Cold War, watch there three classic movies: The Russians Are Coming, The Russians Are Coming (a stranded Russian sub freaks out a New England coastal village), The Mouse That Roared (a small European kingdom declares war on America and wins), and Dr. Strangelove Or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Loved The Bomb (a crazed American general orders a nuclear bomber into Russia). These movies, made in the 1960s when nuclear annihilation was only a thumb press away from happening, are biting satires of the world we once lived in—and may return to by the way things are going.

Comcast Service (Or, Lack Thereof)

While waiting for a friend to show up to go see a movie, I heard the familiar rap-a-tap knocking and opened the door without looking through the peephole. A Comcast representative stood on the other side to tell me about the new re-wiring for high-speed service being done throughout the apartment complex, asking me why I haven’t signed up for their wonderful service. I restrained myself from giving an honest answer. I astonished him when I said I didn’t watch TV and closed the door on his face.

My problem with Comcast is that I’m required to go down to the local office to prove that I wasn’t the previous resident who skipped payment. After I first moved into my studio apartment three years ago, I spent an hour arguing with a service rep in India on why Comcast treats their customers so differently than the utility companies do. When I called for phone and electric services, I didn’t have to go local office to prove who I was (or wasn’t). I guess the utility companies don’t have thieves for customers.

As for watching TV, I haven’t done that in over 15 years. What little TV I do watch is available online via Amazon Unbox, Apple iTunes and Netflix.  That’s cheaper than a monthly cable bill for 500+ channels that I don’t have time to watch.

Bruce Springsteen Concert @ HP Pavilion (San Jose)

My friend and I went this past Saturday to the Bruce Springsteen concert at the HP Pavilion in San Jose. This was my first “full on” rock concert. I went to a Michael McDonald and Steely Dan concert at the Shoreline Amphitheatre in Mountain View in 2006, but sitting on the back lawn isn’t the same thing as being down in the mosh pit 20 feet from the stage. This was also my first broad exposure to Bruce Springsteen since the only song I’m familiar with was “Born In The USA” in 1984 when I was a teenage Reagan Democrat.

We got there three hours before the show started to get the pink wrist band for the mosh pit. The number on my wristband was 666—an interesting number. What made it more interesting after we got our green wrist bands and lined up to enter the building was two men standing on the sidewalk out in front, one wearing a sandwich board that proclaims “JESUS SAVES YOU FROM HELL” and another with a bullhorn reassuring us that we were all going to hell (but not because we were attending a rock concert). They managed to annoy everyone in hearing range and prompted some people put in their earplugs sooner. After haranguing the front of the line for 20 minutes, they moved 30 feet down the sidewalk to annoy the people in the middle of the line. I seriously doubt that security would nab these two if they stepped off of the sidewalk (protected speech) on to city property (trespassing). The traffic officers on duty were more interested in the taxi drivers who stopped wherever they please.

Once the doors opened, it was an orderly mad rush into the mosh pit.

My first impression of the HP Pavilion (previously known as the San Jose Arena) was that the interior layout doesn’t seem to match the exterior layout, looking smaller inside than outside. I expected the interior to look as impressive as the exterior for the $100 million USD that the city spent for the arena. This was the same city council that dropped $500,000 USD on an Aztec snake god statue that looks like a giant pile of dog poop.

Bruce was had a great time singing, playing his guitars or harmonica, and taking requests from the audience. The most memorable moment was when he pulled up a guy from the front row who had the song title, “Glory Days,” written on his bald forehead with a permanent marker, and playing that song nearly blew the roof off the place. Another moment was when Bruce showed a sign that said, “Bruce, You’re my real Dad!”, admitting that he was here in these parts back in 1969.

Come to think of it, I was born in 1969. Hmm… I could never grow a soul patch like his.

Wild Hairs & Weird Haircuts

You know you’re getting old is when you have hair growing in—or out of—the weirdest places.  Unless the hair in question is sticking out of my nose, unusual never bothered me—until I got my haircut today.

I went into my usual hair saloon to request my usual number two cut on the sides and back, a round cut on the neck, and a quarter-inch off the top.  The Vietnamese woman cutting my hair asked about the half-inch scar on the back of my head. I was a five-year-old rocking back and forth while sitting on my father’s anvil when I fell backwards, hitting my head on the lawnmower blade, woke up entering the hospital with my parents, where a man in green scrubs lay me on the examination table to put me under, and I woke up in the recovery room with a Hell’s Angel biker handcuffed to the examination table, who look like he got into a knife fight and broke his arm.

The electric cutter suddenly took a dive into one ear and into the next ear, and the Yoda-like tuffs of ear hair vanished before I knew what was going on. When she asked if I wanted my eyebrows cut, I raised my eyebrows in surprise. No one has ever asked that question. My eyebrows weren’t hairy caterpillars that could jump off and attack someone. I’m not sure why she thought my eyebrows needed cutting since they looked fairly normal. I shook my head.  She finished the cut.

I haven’t had this much fun since I got a haircut at San Jose City College cosmetology department when the student cutting my hair nicked the back of one ear that blood tickled down my neck and she almost fainted. Or when another student almost drown me while washing my hair, which was the closest I ever came to being waterboarded. When you’re a cash-strapped college student and haircuts cost $3.50 USD, you can’t complain too much. When you’re an adult paying $15 USD (including tip) for a haircut, things shouldn’t get too weird.

Sprint Misplaced A Decimal Point

My father had an interesting story about what happened to him this past weekend after making an electronic payment of $49.99 USD to Sprint for his cellphone bill. When he checked his checking account, he owed the bank $23,000 USD for covering a $49,990 USD overdraft by Sprint. He jawbones Sprint to get his money back. Now he’s arguing with the bank over a $30 USD overdraft charge for the regular phone bill that came in while his checking account was in the red. Bad enough that Sprint misplaced a decimal point, but why did the bank accept such an outrageous amount in the first place?

Updated 29 February 2007: Sprint still wants $49,990 USD from my father’s checking account by charging him for a second time. After another jawboning phone call where he got put on hold for a short 47 minutes before getting his money back, the bank was kind enough to let my father put a stop payment on the electronic payment without charging him for it. No wonder The New York Times is reporting that Sprint posted a $29.5 billion lost for the quarter. Senior citizens like my father won’t let them keep the extra change. The only reason why I don’t have problems with my Sprint account is that I still write paper checks for the utilities.

The Horror of Video Cam Movies

The newest trend in monster movies is where the handheld video camera (or, “cam”) plays a larger role than the no-name stars or even the monsters. Two recent movies, “Cloverfield” and “George A. Romero’s Diary of The Dead,” illustrate this trend. Home amateurs, college students at film schools, and professional filmmakers will imitate both movies, looking to ride the newest trend. The horror comes not from the current movies but from the new movies that will appear in the future to exploit this troubling trend.


“Cloverfield” is a retelling of the classic monster-trashing-the-big-city formula from the perspective of a single video cam that recorded a dating relationship getting hot from a month earlier before it gets recorded over during a going away party where the dating relationship has gone cold. If the sound system at the theater wasn’t set to extra loud, I might have snooze through this soap opera. No one cared about the poor smuck getting ditched and then rescuing the girl who ditched him. When the monster and baby monsters are finally shown, we don’t see them for long. This movie is about the horrors of lost love, not a monster destroying a city.

The highlights includes the head of the Statue of Liberty rolling down the street like a bowling ball, where the harden citizens of New York City whipped out their cellphone to take pictures; a collapsed building that sends a 9/11-inspired wall of dust down the concrete canyons; and a subway station being shaken by the monster fighting the military on the streets above.  Since only one video cam recorded everything, the ending lacks the context to tie the story into the real world and the viewers are left struggling to find meaning in what they saw. If that wasn’t bad enough, an excellent sound track played during the credits was the best part of this movie.


“George A. Romero’s Diary of The Dead” will become a cult classic for flawlessly executing the making of an internet movie called “The Death of Death” that documents the zombie outbreak as recorded by a group of film making students with two video cams, and edited to include video from other video cams, wireless surveillance cameras, cell phone cameras, and stuff downloaded the from the Internet to provide a larger context to the real world (i.e., some of the video was stock footage taken during Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans).

The highlights includes an actress questioning the conventional horror movie formula of a scream queen running in her high heels in the middle of nowhere to have the monster grab her nightgown and show off her breasts (which does happen to her later on when the cameraman forgets he’s making a documentary); exploding eyeballs when a pair of defibrillator paddles gets applied to a zombie’s head in a hospital; and an old Amish man who commits suicide by ramming his scythe into his head and the head of the zombie behind him. Romero is holding a contest for the best three-minute short video to win an appearance on the DVD release.

And the horror begins.

The Plant

My father’s first construction job after moving my mother and brother from Idaho in the early 1950’s was at the General Electric Motor Plant on Curtner Avenue and Monterey Road in San Jose. When the company he worked for kept him standing around doing nothing, he quit his job after two weeks because he wanted to work. (That didn’t please my mother since she wanted to spend his paycheck whether he worked or not.) General Electric eventually shut down the plant some years ago and a real estate developer turned it into a new shopping called The Plant (which reminds me of a Stephen King story by the same name). I went there to check out the new stores and marvel at a piece of family history.

I got a ten-dollar gift card from OfficeMax to use at their new store at The Plant. Much of the shopping center is still under construction. Only the big box stores—OfficeMax, Target, Toy “R” Us, Best Buy and Pet Smart—were opened. From the distinctive orange paint on the largest building, I suspect Home Depot will open soon. I keep wondering how many Home Depots one area can support with the real estate market tanking from the sub-prime mess.

Or, if you want a real brain teaser, why does every shopping center has a nail saloon?

I guess people still have money to burn in Silicon Valley. I certainly don’t. I stayed out of Target as I usually spend a hundred bucks whenever I go in, I didn’t need another DVD from Best Buy, and I’m sure I would have gotten something for my tropical fishes if I went into Pet Smart. The OfficeMax store was nice, clean and better organized than their typical store. I got a box of envelopes and a few other items that came to twenty bucks after I used the gift card. I may come here in the future, as this particular store is a short freeway hop from my home.

The Blog Is Dead, Long Live the Blog!

I started my website ten years ago on Geocities as a showcase for my crazy talents as a video game designer while working as a video game tester at Accolade/Infogrames/Atari (same company, different owners, multiple identity crises) for six years. Alas, that didn’t happen. Working in the video game industry sucked the life out of me, my ambition at being a video game designer went nowhere, and the Quake 2 deathmatch map I worked on for years became a sprawling mess.

After I got a UNIX account at an Internet provider in 1999, I moved my website over, started honing my skills in HTML and CSS to build better web pages, and started posting personal observations on a irregular basis.  I later moved the website to its own domain five years ago, creating a new website from scratch using LAMP (Linux/Apache/MySQL/PHP), added pictures, reviews and other content, and eventually renamed the website to Once Upon An Albatross… after a Wildcat! BBS I ran back in 1995 before something called the Internet became popular.

What I’ve been doing with the website in recent years is known as blogging. I never accepted the term or embraced the technology. My website has always been a reflection of whatever was going on in my life. With my new long-term focus of becoming a writer, I’m embracing blogging to expand my writing skills and focus less on maintaining a rickety website that I programmed.

I started looking into content management systems (CMS) that I could use as a replacement for my website.  Most of my coworkers mentioned Joomla! as a good CMS to try. After playing around with it for a few days, I picked up “Joomla! A User’s Guide: Building A Successful Joomla! Powered Website” by Barrie M. North from the bookstore, and spent an afternoon creating a bare bone website with recent content.

Converting ten years of content will take a while. I’m hoping to wrap that up in several months. Meanwhile, I’ll continue to blog away and make changes where necessary to improve the new website. A commenting system for the postings will be available soon. (This was a feature that I wanted to program into the old website but never had the time to implement.) I might create a custom template design to replace the template I’m using now later this year.