Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Choice Home Warranty Scam Is Looking For Fat Albert

I've been getting a lot SPAM lately from a place called Choice Home Warranty, so I decided to fill out one of their web forms. I listed my name as "Albert Cosby". Within 24 hours, I got a call. Initially, the guy on the other end was pretty amused by my Fat Albert impression, but, when Albert took umbrage at having his weight called out, things got a little heated. Soon, Bill Cosby himself had to intervene. The salesman seemed to enjoy my bad Bill Cosby impression at first but grew increasingly frustrated when I wouldn't let him get a word in and hung up about three and-a-half minutes into the call.

The number they call from is (732) 947-5442

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Legal Help Center Calls Me

I got a call yesterday from a lady claiming to be from "Legal Help Center". My caller-ID reported the number as (702) 224-2006. Basically, I got called by a group of virtual ambulance chasers hoping to cash in on class action lawsuits against manufacturers of faulty trans-vaginal mesh p[roducts. The lady on the other end was sticking heavily to her script, so when I told her that I would have no need for a trans-vaginal mesh lawsuit since I was male, she seemed a bit confused as how to proceed. 

The number they supposedly called from, 702-224-2006 is one that has been used for the past 12 months to push various scams like medical research, health insurance, etc. It's obviously connected to a boiler-room call center staffed by foreign workers. 

Thursday, February 5, 2015

Bosley Hair Restoration Calls me

The folks over at Bosley Hair Restoration called me recently. Seeing as I had just gotten my hair cut a few hours previous to the call, I wasn't really in the mood to talk about hair transplants. So, after the rep went into her pitch, I remarked that I didn't know that Tom Bosley was still alive. The lady on the other end didn't seem to know who Tom Bosley was. Must not have been a Happy Days fan. I then told her that I would love to see a movie about Tom Bosley eating beans. Before I could make a pitch for a Kickstarter project to finance a Tom Bosley bean-eating movie, the lady interrupted me, called me unprofessional and hung up on me.

I didn't even get a chance to work in a Charlie's Angel's joke. Maybe next time.

PS: RIP Tom Bosley. 1927-2010

Monday, February 2, 2015

Amazon Started Collecting Sales Tax In Illinois

If there were a Razzie award for "Worst State in The Union", not only would Illinois show up to collect it, but it would then give a passionate speech about how hard it worked to become the worst, would sell the award on eBay and would charge the buyer sales tax after doing it. This month, ensured compliance with the Illinois online sales tax law and has started collecting 6.25% sales tax on all items purchased through its site by Illinois residences. Brick mortar retailers in Illinois have praised the new law without realizing that they're shooting themselves in the foot in the long run for short sighted apparent gains.

I hate to sound like I'm vehemently anti-tax, because I'm not, but I do believe that the tax burden in Illinois is already too heavy. Merely looking at my property tax bill is enough to make my pocket book vomit twenty dollar bills. And while I do support Illinois' constitutional duty to properly fund our schools with tax revenue, I realize that they do so at half the funding rate of other states. Which, again, kicks the tax burden down the road so that other sources of funding can pick it up. Thus comes the online sales tax leading to that sinking feeling that we in Illinois are being taxed into oblivion.

Illinois isn't the first state to force major online retailers to collect sales tax. Twenty-three other states have similar requirements. Amazon can expect purchases to fall off about 10 percent, if Illinois residents are anything like the folks in other states. For big purchases, Amazon could see a decline as high as 25 percent from Illinois residents. The thing is, the 10 percenters and 25 percenters aren't taking that money to brick and mortar shops in their respective states. They're just going to other online retailers that don't collect the tax.

There are some instances where you can buy from Amazon and still avoid the sales tax. Purchase from an Amazon seller or purchase a product that says "fulfilled by Amazon" in the description. Those retailers don't have a taxable presence and will sell to you without collecting sales tax.

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

The New My Coke Rewards Sucks

For about three years now, I've been somewhat meticulous about entering Coca-Cola bottle cap codes into the MyCokeRewards website. It's a fairly pointless endeavor, as, by my calculations, each point is worth only about three cents. Collecting and entering codes is like saving up pennies in a jar. Still, it's easy to do and the points do add up. Eventually.

Recently, the brain trust over at MyCokeRewards revamped the website. In addition to the code entering, there is now a series of social challenges that you have to do in order to earn status. Greater status unlocks better rewards that you can use your points for. The social challenges entail linking your social networking accounts and posting content from MyCokeRewards to it, which essentially turns you into a shill for Coca-Cola. It's no longer enough to simply offer a loyalty program, My Coke Rewards now wants its customers to help them trend on social media.

It's a poor business practice. First off, focusing so much on social media penetration is pointless, as Coca Cola isn't going to get much more brand awareness or attract many new customers via this method. Second, all of the shilling that My Coke Rewards is having their members do consists of re-posting content, thus relegating the tweets and statuses to little more than Internet background noise. Sure, MyCokeRewards may trend, but the content that pushed the trend will be meaningless.

I can't help but think that My Coke Rewards should have thrown a bone to its loyal customer base and elevated everyone who was a member before the status system to the highest status. That hasn't happened, though, and it won't ever happen because it makes no sense from a corporate standpoint. There are millions of people who have a decent amount of points already sunk into the system and, in order to get a chance to redeem those points for some non-lame rewards, those customers are going to shoot for Gold status. So, they'll re-tweet and re-post content like some heroin addict making promises to his dealer in order to score a future hit.

And the worst part about this whole ordeal is that the brain trust over at My Coke Rewards has disabled the ability to send in your codes via text. I hope that's only temporary, as that had been the only way to avoid dealing with the insanity of their website. 

Me? I'm out. What was once a recreational use of points has now become too impactful on my lifestyle. Forget the sunk cost. I'm cutting my losses. The only way to win this game is not to play.

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

SIMCITY BuildIt Review

The level of respect I have for Electronic Arts has been declining for several years now. It took a huge tumble last year with the release of their lobotomized PC version of SimCity. Actually, I didn't think my opinion of Electronic Arts could get any worse. The release of SimCity BuildIt for Android and iOS has proven me wrong.

The whole point of the SimCity franchise is that it's a City Simulator. And, yet, as I expected, there's not much simulation going on in SimCity BuildIt. It's more like a crafting game where you wait for various pieces of the neighborhood to spin up and fit in. It's basically an urbanized version of Hay Day. And, just like any freemium game, if you don't like waiting, you can pay real money to buy enough virtual currency to craft things instantly.

Honestly, though SimCity BuildIt is somewhat fair with regards to the virtual currency. The craft timers are fairly reasonable and there aren’t any hard-lined pay wall barriers. Of course, coin shortage is a constant problem by design but BuildIt has a number of ways that you can easily earn more. There are plenty of opportunities to sell crafting materials to the AI. You can also sell materials to other players online. The most effective use is to use them to upgrade residences which will earn you a fair amount of coins instantly. In order to expand your land, you have to acquire certain special items, and the method for doing so seems to be too random, so it's incredibly frustrating.

Still, SimCity BuildIt is a beautiful game to look at. You have full rotational control over the town and even the low-class buildings are gorgeously detailed. But, the graphics are just are superficial means to entire you into spending some bucks so you can build even prettier buildings. And the truly gorgeous structures have costs in amounts that one can never hope to achieve without paying for some virtual cash.

All things considered, SimCity BuildIt isn't bad for a freemium game. But, if you're a fan of the old SimCity franchise, you're going to be frustrated and disappointed.

Cow Fart Valley

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

National Claims Center Calls Me

I got a call recently from someone claiming to be from the National Claims Center hoping to find someone in need of federal disability benefits. First, I got a recording from (561) 231-1541 and it told me that I'd soon be getting a call from a live representative. The live rep called from (561) 231-5017 claiming to be from the National Claims Center and asked if I or anyone in my household needed help filing for disability benefits. Since this seemed like some boiler-room cold call scam, I put on my Clovis voice and messed with her a bit. You can hear her getting more and more frustrated as the call goes on. At one point, I reprimand her for interrupting me, after which she soon politely says he goodbye and signs off.

Monday, January 12, 2015

LegoLand Discovery Center Chicago

I'm a Lego fanatic. In fact, one of the happiest days of my childhood was the Christmas when I received the Lego knight's castle. It's that passion for Lego that inspired me to bring the family to the LegoLand Discovery Center in Chicago over holiday break and it's that passion that I found lacking in every single employee in the place.

Before I delve further into this review, let me offer a tip: Buy your tickets online. Trust me on this one. You'll be able to bypass the drones stuck waiting in line to buy their tickets at the counter. And, if you can arrange it, try to buy the "Arrive after 3pm" tickets, as they are cheaper and the LegoLand Discovery Center is open late enough that you won't miss anything by arrivng so late in the day. And don't bother purchasing the "Activity Pack". At $5 extra per person, it's not worth it. I offer these money making tips and tricks because LegoLand Discovery Center is just not worth paying full price or waiting in line for.

The kids were all excited to go because, like me, they are Lego fanatics. In fact, they avoided buying anything at the traditional Lego store we encountered during a little side-trip because we were all sure that the gift shop at the LegoLand Discovery Center would have a better selection of items. It doesn't. Not by a long shot. It's basically the same type of store you'll find in any large mall. And, considering that you have pay so much to gain admission, you'd think that they'd offer a small discount on the items they sell. A better business model is definitely needed.

By far, the most disappointing feature of the LegoLand Discovery Center is the employees. They have no passion for what they're doing and there were times when they were downright rude. I get it; an environment packed to the gills with tons of kids running around doesn't exactly inspire smiles. And it wouldn't be so bad if every single employee wasn't slow and plodding at their job.

The play area is utter chaos, which is to be expected. Don't expect peaceful play in a place that admits children of all ages. And it was disappointing to see that no one was staffing the play areas. The Duplo area, intended for kids five and under, was overrun by older kids without any supervision. A staff member in the area just to maintain control or even to have a presence would go a long way.
That being said, some of the Lego exhibits were impressive. Chicago in Lego looked incredible and was, for me, the highlight of the visit. The Dragon Ride was very cool, but the line to got on was longer than the actual ride lasted. And the ride didn't work properly as it had trouble tallying the shot scores of everyone in the gondola. There's also a 4D movie based on Lego Chima. Unfortunately, many of the 4D features were not working during our visit.

So, my own recommendation is that you avoid LegoLand Discovery Center Chicago if you can at all help it. You don't get much bang for your buck.

Wednesday, January 7, 2015

Medieval Times Review

We decided to take take the kids to Medieval Times: Chicago Castle (actually in Schaumburg, IL) last Thursday night as part of our ongoing New Year's vacation. Back in my post-college days, I lived about ten minutes from that place and had always wanted to go, but never quite got around to it, basically because my friends and I often referred to it as "Ye Olde Tourist Trap"

The show is much like the Tournament of Kings at the Excalibur Hotel in Vegas. There's lots of fanfare, actors wearing costumes and talking in pseudo-old English accents, jousting, sword fights, utensil-less food, and wenches serving ale (at substantially marked up prices).

Don't expected to get seated right away. Upon entering, you're led off to the great hall where you can buy various souvenir trinkets and where various upsell ceremonies take place. The Hall was packed to the gills with people making it hard to move around. I got so antsy over it that paying $10 for a beer in a souvenir mug actually seemed like a good idea. Anything to take the edge off.

Once you get in, you're served a decent meal of texas toast, soup, chicken breast, grilled potato wedge, riblet and an apple turnover. Not bad. But, we didn't come for the food. We came for the show. As an actor myself, I appreciated how hard the actors at Medieval Times worked to battle each other and play to the crowd. The only bad thing I can say about the performance was that when any defeated jouster got knocked off their horse, the actors quite clearly jumped and it looked really fake. However, the rest of stage combat was really good. Whenever they clashed swords, sparks literally flew (something gimmicky about the swords, no doubt)! I also loved seeing the knights using flails and shields as weapons.

Overall, I can say that we all had a great time and were glad that we went. Medieval Times is not particularly cheap, though. And there are a ton of upsell packages to wade through. Yes, it's gimmicky and yes it's touristy, but it's fun and it's something you should do at least once.

Google photos made an auto-awesome movie of the video footage I shot at Medieval Times Chicago Castle. If you have a look at it, you can get a decent idea of what to expect.

Monday, January 5, 2015

KeyLime Cove Review

We took the family up to KeyLime Cove in Gurnee, IL. for New Year's Eve. We had signed up for the New Year's Eve party package which included a large room (2 adults, 4 kids) plus a dinner buffet and a breakfast buffet along with admission to the water park. Overall, everyone had a great time.

There are two things I really want to highlight about KeyLime Cove. First off, the staff is incredibly friendly. We're talking Disneyland level of friendliness here. The lady next to me at the check-in counter was having a huge meltdown over her reservation having been cancelled and the agent serving her handled it with grace, poise and a concerned-yet-friendly smile. Second, I had expected to be overwhelmed by the smell of chlorine in the water park, but it's nonexistant. KeyLime Cove uses an ozone disinfection system to keep the water clean. As a tech/science geek, I found that to be pretty fascinating and it made me wish I could have taken the behind the scenes tour to learn more about it (offered on weekends only).   

There was a ton of stuff for the kids to do besides hang out in the water park. There were a number of activities going on over at the Leaping Lizard's center. The biggest non-aquatic hit was the arcade, though. The arcade issues cards which you swipe for play credits on each machine. It's pretty ingenius and you can end up spending way more money than you had intended to. Adults get special wrist bands which act as keys and are also used to charge things to the room such as alcohol and other items. Again, you'll spend way more money than you had intended if you're not careful. Every room in KeyLime Cove has a fridge, so you'd do well to bring your own soda, snacks and beer in order to minimize expenses.

The dinner buffet included in the package we bought was nothing to write home about. It was decent, and the kids ate until they got their fill, but it wasn't something I'd have been happy to directly pay for. The breakfast buffet was really good, though. I think next year if/when we go, we'll either hit one of the actual restaurants inside KeyLime Cove or we'll order out.

We will be going back at some point, however I don't think that KeyLimeCove is the sort of place where you'd spend more than a night or two. There just isn't enough to do there for any longer without getting bored. For a one night getaway, though, its fantastic!

Monday, December 29, 2014

Toe Insurance

I got a call from some auto insurance quote mill and launched into my Diksmash Mikironkok character. Diksmash wanted to know why he'd need a quote for "toe insurnce" when he has all ten toes and is unconcerned over losing them. Since I was somewhat pressed for time, I stopped the gag about a minute in and told the poor auto insurance quote lady that I was just messing with her. She seemed rather annoyed.

Monday, December 22, 2014

Fence Wood Dandelion Painting

If you've got a girlfriend, you've got to learn to love Pinterest. It basically serves as a wish list for her birthday, Christmas, your anniversary, etc. When I noticed that my own girlfriend had pinned a custom painted fence wood dandelion painting from an Etsy store named InspireMeHomeDecor, I decided to see if I could buy her one. As much as I loved the artist's work, the price I was quoted just wasn't within my budget. I became determined to re-create the painting myself.

I started by scavenging some old pallets. They're pretty easy to come by where I live, otherwise, I would have just pulled a few from the back of my local grocery store. Ideally, I'd have chosen some pallets that had been kiln dried or otherwise heat treated, but that didn't seem to be an option. I merely selected some gently weathered pallets that didn't appear to have any contaminants. It was also important for me to choose pallets that were not too damaged and were free from bowing and warping. I also disregarded any pallets that smelled weird or had stains/oil marks on them. Once I got the pallets home, I yanked the boards off of them using a hammer and crowbar. In some cases, I was able to bang the nail out from the reverse side. Mostly, I just pulled and pried. I soon noticed that the weathering was different among each of the pallets I had chosen, so I would have to work with the material from one pallet if I wanted to keep a consistent look for the fence wood dandelion painting.

Pulling the boards off gave me six plank boards that were approximately 5 feet long. And while that would have roughly worked with InspireMeHomeDecor's dimensions for the original fence wood dandelion painting, I felt it was too big for what I was trying to do. I decided to cut the boards in half, resulting in 12 plank boards that were two-and-a-half feet long. This would prove to be much easier to manage. I used a power saw to cut the boards in half. Precise measurements weren't needed as I knew that I'd be assembling them boards in a somewhat scattered pattern. I just tried to get as close to 30 inches as possible on each boards. Once the boards had been cut, I considered sanding them down, which would have made them easier to work with, but I decided against it as it would take off the weathering pattern.

I assembled the boards into a scattered pattern. I had originally planned to use two more pieces of plank wood to run across the height of the canvas at both ends in order to hold the planks together. However, seeing as some wood from the packaging of a recent flooring purchase was available, I used that instead. I bound it all together with a staple gun and two-and-a-half inch staples. I picked up a pair of picture hanging hooks, screwed them to the tie-boards and ran piece of wire between them. This would make the painting easier to mount on a wall.

Actually painting the thing was the trickiest part. Even though it's a simple picture, I'm no artist. And I had absolutely no idea what materials I would need to work with in order to achieve the look I had been wanting. I had to punt and consult an actual artist at this point. Pallet wood is very porous and soaks up paint very easily, so painting it as is would present a challenge. It was suggested that I prime it. Indeed, InspireMeHomeDecor had white washed her planks when she created her fence wood dandelion painting. I decided against treating the wood in any way as I really wanted to keep the original petina. This meant that the dandelion image had to be painted very carefully and it took a fair amount of effort since the planks tended to suck up the paint like a sponge.

The end result of my efforts to create a fence wood dandelion painting is below. Overall, not bad for a guy who had no idea what he was doing to begin with. But, would you actually pay money for it or pin it to your Pinterest? That's up to you.

My Version Of A Fence Wood Dandelion Painting

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Five Ways Sony Can Save Spider-Man

In the wake of the massive hacking attack suffered by Sony Pictures, there has been a lot of talk about the direction of Sony's Spider-Man franchise. The last two movies weren't exactly the pinnacle of cinematic excellence and Sony can't seem to figure out whether they should continue on with Amazing Spider-Man 3, start over again or reach out to Marvel for help. The thing is, as much as I hated The Amazing Spider-Man and The Amazing Spider-Man 2, the situation isn't as bleak as we've been led to believe. The franchise doesn't really need saving because there's not that much that's wrong with it. The last two movies were beautifully shot, well cast and well directed. The problem is with the writing and the pacing and the overall "big picture". We were given two films over-stuffed with plot threads (many of which went nowhere) topped with one-dimensional villains with dubious motivations.

As much as I love the Marvel Cinematic Universe, tossing Spider-Man back over to them is probably a bad idea. While it will certainly result in better movies, it means that, due to all the characters in rotation, we'll be getting fewer Spider-Man movies. Sony can still pull this out of the fire. Here's how:

Five Ways Sony Can Save Spider-Man

  1. Dump Avi Arad. He's the head honcho of all things Spider-Man over at Sony and he's the main problem with this franchise. He has made a number of poor creative decisions regarding the direction of the franchise over the years, the most egregious being the way he forced Sam Raimi to use Venom in Spider-Man 3. Arad sees Spider-Man only as a money making asset and all of his creative decisions are built around that. 

  2. Keep Andrew Garfield. He did really well with what he was given in the last two movies. He looks the part of Peter Parker and acts the part as well despite Peter being written as a miserable douchebag. He has a real passion for playing Spider-Man and if he gets a decent script in his hands, he'd really make it fly off the page. 

  3. Bring in actual writers who are longtime fans and trust them to get the job done. The writers of the last two movies, Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman are hacks who write by stringing together various set pieces and sprinkling them with pop culture references. They shouldn't be allowed anywhere near Spider-Man. It's time to bring in someone who has respect for the character who can write a compelling, layered story with an exciting villain that is a character piece first, an action movie second, and a romance third (if at all). Whomever this writer turns out to be should have little studio interference as "too many cooks" is what has spoiled the last three Spider-Man movies. 

  4. Build the universe, but don't make it look like you're trying to build the universe. One of the main problems with The Amazing Spider-Man 2 is that it was trying to quickly shove a bunch of universe building references into it. Overall, it felt like a 90 minute advertisement for Sony's planned Sinister Six movie or maybe The Amazing Spider-Man 3. Either way, story elements took a back seat to introducing characters that may or may not be followed up on. They key here is to be subtle. Work slowly and methodically. Build the Sinister Six like it was built in the Spectacular Spider-Man animated series. 

  5. Play nice with Marvel. I don't mean that they should give the reins back to Marvel. Sony doesn't have to collaborate with them on main Spider-Man movies, but they should encourage Marvel to "borrow" Spidey as a supporting character in their movies and maybe "borrow" Nick Fury or Coulson for their Spider-Man movies. The franchise has lost a lot of credibility lately and sucking up some Marvel cred would do it a lot of good.  .

Monday, November 10, 2014

Birdman: A Review

Birdman (The Unexpected Virtue Of Ignorance) is a black comedy in limited release that tells the story of Riggan Thomson (Michael Keaton), a washed up actor who achieved fame by portraying an iconic superhero as he struggles to mount a Broadway play in a last ditch attempt for artistic relevance. In the days leading up to opening night, he battles his ego as well as a upstaging costar (Edward Norton) while attempting to recover his family, his career, and himself. If you've seen the previews or the Television spots, you may be tempted to see the movie so that you can check out some of the cool special effects related to the Birdman character. Birdman is not germane to the plot, however, and serves only as the voice of Riggan's ego. So, don't expect much in the way of superhero action. What's important is that Keaton's character was a huge movie star at one point in his career and has fallen into near-obscurity. This movie is a backstage drama, not a comic book comeback.

The casting of Keaton can easily be seen as meta since he starred in the Batman franchise before walking away and fading into near-obscurity. Whether or not that was the intention, Keaton brings his full talent to the role and delivers a rich, layered, poignant and sometimes comedic performance. Riggan, determined to prove himself on Broadway by directing and starring in a self-financed adaptation of Raymond Carter’s short story “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love.” faces mounting adversity during previews of the show. Riggan must not only cope with his just-out-of-drug rehab daughter (Emma Stone) and embittered ex-wife (Amy Ryan) but also his harried lawyer/manager (Zach Galifianakis), actress girlfriend (Andrea Riseborough), insecure leading lady (Naomi Watts), and her narcissistic actor/boyfriend (Edward Norton) who is bound and determined to steal Riggan's thunder for himself. Compounding Riggan's problems is the voice of Birdman, as his alter-ego, firmly lodged in his brain, seemingly enabling his mystical telekinetic powers. In the end, we end up asking ourselves what makes someone relevant, what the difference is between love and admiration and we are reminded that we may be too quick to dismiss art as crap if it does not suit our tastes.

The performances are excellent and there's some great back-and-forths between Keaton and Norton. Yet, a discussion about Birdman cannot truly be had until one mentions the fluid cinematography, edited in such a way as to appear like one continuous take, and the percussion-based score which adds to Riggan's angst. This type of cinematic jazz will challenge your notions about narrative and will leave you richer for having experienced it. Still, at the end of the day, Birdman is a movie that you're either going to "get" or completely dismiss as a flaming pile of turd. Personally, I think this is the best movie of 2014.

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

Don't Blame Me, I Voted For Kodos!

It was a pretty close race, but, in the end, Republican Bruce Rauner won the Governor's seat in Illinois. For me, the choice between Rauner and the incumbent Pat Quinn came down to a toss-up between a Giant Douche and a Turd Sandwich and the close margin of the election seems to indicate that the rest of the state felt the same way. If we look at some of the other results, though, something very interesting is happening.

On the ballot in Illinois, all voters were asked to vote on various initiatives. These were non-binding votes intended to communicate the electorate's thoughts on what policies the Illinois legislature should vote in favor of during the next session. By a two-to-one margin the people of Illinois voted in favor of raising the minimum wage and voted in favor raising taxes on higher incomes. So, the people Illinois clearly want a higher minimum wage and higher taxes on rich incomes, and yet they elect a Governor who specifically said that he intends to do the opposite of those things?

In the end, I'd say that it didn't really matter who got voted into office. The end result here is that Illinois ousted a guy who got nothing done and replaced him with a guy who won't get anything done