Friday, December 29, 2017

John Schnatter Out As CEO Of Papa Johns

"Papa" John Schnatter will be stepping down as CEO of Papa John's next month. This comes in the wake of his criticisms of the NFL's handling of national anthem protests by football players. Chief Operating Officer, Steve Ritchie, will replace Schnatter on Januaray 1. Schnatter will remain Chairman, but it has not yet been determined whether or not he will remain the company's spokesman.

This makes me think that DC Comics should take inspiration from this and create a Batman villain based on John Schnatter and his circumstances. They could call him Pizza John and make him a comical yet dangerous foe akin to The Condiment King. I initial confrontation practically writes itself. Pizza John, seeking to disrupt a Gotham City Wildcats game, humiliates the team by dousing them in garlic butter. Batman intervenes:

Pizza John: I don't mean to sound CHEESY, Batman, but these players have no right to be so SAUCY. They're the UPPER CRUST of society and I'm going to SLICE them up for what they've done!

Batman: SHUT UP! [Punches Pizza John and knocks him out]

Wednesday, December 27, 2017

My Thoughts On The Last Jedi

I caught "Star Wars: The Last Jedi" on a whim the other night. I had heard pretty much everything about the film before actually sitting down to see it, so I knew what to expect. There are a lot of passionate reviews both in favor and against this film and, knowing the plot going in, I still wasn't sure which side I'd come out on.

I'm not a die-hard Star Wars fan. I've seen all of the movies, but never read any of the books. I've tried to sit through the Clone Wars and Rebels tv series only to get bored before getting halfway through them. I liked playing with Star Wars toys as a kid, but found GI Joe to be superior (Kung-Fu grip for the win!). I am somewhat emotionally invested in the characters from the original trilogy, but I realize that there's a need for new blood in order for the franchise to move forward.

Without getting too spoiler-y, I'll say that I like that "The Last Jedi" takes some risks and isn't a total rehash like "The Force Awakens" was. Still, I wish that the plot threads that were left dangling in The Last Jedi were resolved in a more satisfying manner. Who is Snoke and where does he come from? Well, it doesn't matter now, because he's dead. How was Kylo Ren seduced to the Dark Side? Doesn't matter now because he's all in. What's the deal with the Knights of Ren? Doesn't matter now because Kylo Ren doesn't need them. It seems as if JJ Abrams gave us a ton of mysteries in "The Force Awakens" and wasn't sure how to resolve them, so Rian Johnson just dropped them when he took up "The Last Jedi". It results in some interesting and somewhat bold choices, which is new for a Star Wars film. I walked away from "The Last Jedi" liking it as a film on its own, but not necessarily liking it as a Star Wars film. And, after a few days of thought, I think I finally understand why.

When we see Luke Skywalker, instead of the triumphant hero from "Return of the Jedi", we get a hermit with a broken spirit who has turned his back on the Force. There are reasons behind his behavior, of course. He tells us that he sensed Snoke's evil influence growing within Kylo Ren, went to confront him, thought about murdering him for a brief second and was immediately ashamed. Kylo Ren retaliated, burned down the temple and killed any student who didn't follow him. It's a story that we're told in flashback, but THAT is the story I want. I want to see the Rebel Alliance trying to form a government and our heroes going from rebels to government officials while the Empire remains an diminished yet very real threat.  I want to see Han Solo trying to adapt to being a law abiding citizen. I want to see Princess Leia trying to live a life outside of public service (until she's called back in a la George Washington). I want to see Luke Skywalker passing on what he had learned to the next generation of Jedi while trying to correct where the order went wrong in Ep 1 - 3. I want to see the emergence of Snoke and his seduction of Ben Solo. Most of all, I want to see that gut wrenching choice Luke makes to kill his own nephew in order to prevent another Darth Vader. Right after that debacle would be a perfect time for Yoda's lecture on learning from our failures.

Unfortunately, we could never get that story because we went 30 years without telling it and time moved on for all of the actors involved. What we got instead was interesting, entertaining and very unexpected. But, where can the trilogy go from here? "The Last Jedi" feels like an ending, yet we still have one more episode to go.

Sunday, December 24, 2017

Gingerbread Houses

Normally, when the Christmas season starts falling upon us, I'll whip up a batch of Grandma Mac's bathtub egg nog until that holly jolly feeling is washed away with a good drunken buzz. This year, however, in addition to the egg nog, we bought a gingerbread house village kit. Each one of us, myself, my wife, and our three kids picked a house, put it together and decorated it. The result, unfortunately, ended up a bit below our expectations. Looks like a block of houses in the gingerbread version of Detroit.

Friday, December 15, 2017

We Crash A Hanukkah Ceremony

"Hanukkah is what they call Christmas in Israel", my oldest son said to me a few days before we got on the ship. I explained to him that, although they happen at about the same time, they aren't the same thing. I didn't delve too deep into the differences, but I went on to explain that there are millions of people all around the world who celebrate Hanukkah instead of Christmas. Here on the Carnival Dream, the staff has has been doing quite a lot to make the Christmas season felt throughout the ship, and, during the Christmas tree lighting ceremony earlier this week, my son spied a menorah and asked again about Hanukkah. I noticed in this morning's Porthole Magazine that there was a Hanukkah ceremony scheduled. I thought that taking my son to attend it might help answer some of his questions. So, we told him to shower ("consider it a mikvah", I joked) and put on a nice shirt. We both went to the Deck 3 lobby at the appointed time.

There were only about a dozen other people there waiting for the ceremony. A Carnival Dream staff member was walking around with a tray of wine and offered me one. Free wine? On a Carnival Cruise? Considering the usual cost for a glass of red wine on a Carnival Cruise, I jumped at the chance to get a free one, even if it was for a religious ceremony. I had been expecting a dry red which was the norm for the Catholic church that I grew up in. Instead, I got something super sweet that tasted like mustum. I tried to mask my surprise as the ceremony started.

After the Hebrew prayer, the Carnival staff member who was running the ceremony asked if anyone would like to light the candle on the menorah. A young lad raised his hand, but his father quickly stopped him, indicating that he'd done so the past few times and he should let someone else volunteer. What a mensch! The Carnival staff member asked for another volunteer. My son quickly put his hand up and a subtle "Oy vey!" almost escaped my lips. There was no shamash to use to light the other candles, as the menorah was electric. My son simply pressed a button under the candle which garnered him some fanfare from the other participants and a Carnival medal from the staff member.

He was proud of himself, and I was happy he had a great experienced and learned a few things along the way. Yet, I couldn't help but think to myself "That's it! We're going to hell".

Thursday, December 14, 2017

Pirates, Monkeys and Exotic Birds at Gumbalimba Park

For our stop in Mahogany Bay, Roatan Island, Honduras, we had originally booked a Carnival sponsored beach day excursion on Maya Key. Some of the bad reviews made us a little bit leery, but we figured that it would be the best excursion for everyone involved. Unfortunately, we got notified a few days ago that the excursion had been cancelled. We ended up booking the Pirates, Monkeys and Exotic Birds excursion. The bus ride from Mahogany Bay to Gumbalimba Park took about 30 minutes and ran through a number of little town along the twisty road. Once we got to the park, we were warned to put our large bags into a locker (rentable for the low low price of $3), as the monkeys had a tendency to unzip large bags in order to search them for food.

After a brief sales pitch about the animal photographers needed funds to help keep them in school, we started off on our walking tour. We were first treated to some history about the pirate, John Coxon. Coxon rose to fame with his attack on Santa Marta in 1677 where he kidnapped the local Governor and Bishop and plundered the town. He later captured a Spanish fleet at Panama which included many man-o-wars. His most legendary achievement, however, was capturing a pair of sloops using nothing more than an Indian canoe with a crew of about seventy. The town of Coxen Hole (tee hee) supposedly gets its name from Captain John Coxon and the time he spent operating out of the island of Roatan.

It's Like They're Having Their Own Little Meeting
Learning about Captain John Coxon was just the first part of the tour. We did a little hiking up to a point where a slaughter of iguanas were hanging out. Obviously, that's where the park staff choose to feed them, so the iguanas stick close in order to get fed. They've got a lot of green iguanas which are "actual" iguanas in that they're of the genus Iguana. Gumbalimba Park is also home to a number of black iguana, which are in the same family as green iguanas, but are different genus and species. Unlike green iguanas, black iguanas can and will eat meat. I don't believe that Gumbalimba Park is home to the other member of the Iguana genus, the Lesser Antillean iguana. Once you're past the feeding ground, you'll notice random iguanas throughout the rest of the park.  

Just past the iguana feeding ground is a long suspension bridge that looks incredibly scary. For people who aren't up for the challenge, there's a much more stable "chicken" bridge. My family and I faced our fears and went over the suspension bridge. I kept thinking of that scene from Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom where Indy cuts the rope bridge in half. I was tempted to say "Shorty! Chau chi lan tsu tsa tsa!" to my daughter, but I knew she shouldn't get the reference.

After a little more hiking, we came to the bird sanctuary where we got to hold macaws and parrots. Trainers are there to balance the birds on your head, shoulders, and/or arms so that you and your friends can take as many pictures as you like. There's also a photographer on staff standing by to take pictures in case you didn't bring a camera yourself. The birds are pretty docile, so no worries about one going all Alfred Hitchcock on you. Although, one of the birds on my shoulder nibbled on my sunglasses, and one squawked loud enough to scare my youngest boy to tears, but no harm done. We got as much time as we wanted with the birds and then we hiked on to the monkey area.
"Take Your Daughter To Work Day"

The white faced capuchin monkeys that live in Gumbalimba Park are cute but ornery. They apparently don't really "live" in the park, they just come there to get fed by the trainers for sitting on the shoulders of tourists. They essentially "work" at the park. Kinda makes them seem even more human. They are trained to sit on the shoulders of the tourists who come into the area and usually receive a treat from their trainer for doing so. The monkeys also gently dig through the hair of tourists looking for bugs to eat. They certainly find them on occasion.

There are trainers at various points in the area who will coax a monkey into jumping onto your shoulder so that you can have your picture taken with one, but, if you just wait around long enough, one will eventually just jump onto your shoulder. As cool as interacting with a monkey is, it's not near as awwww-inspiring as seeing the female monkey walking around with her baby on her back. I had figured that  getting close to a momma monkey carrying her baby would be a huge no-no as it would cause the mother to become defensive. However, I soon saw the momma monkey on the shoulders of a tourist compete with her baby on her back. Those are some well trained monkeys.

The insect museum is probably the lamest area of the tour. They probably shouldn't end with it. I had been hoping that it would be something more like an insect preserve with actual live insect colonies. Once the tour is over, you're free to walk around the park, head back to the monkey and/or bird area, or head over to the beach, pool or mini-restaurant. I had heard that the beach was practically infested by locals hawking souvenirs, and, as we sat in the restaurant area eating, I could see a group of them waiting for the next tour group to hit the beach. We had considered going to the beach, but, by the time we were done with our tour, it was time to head back to the ship.

All in all, we had a great time at Gumbalimba park. The price was more than reasonable for the good time that we all had.

Wednesday, December 13, 2017

Swimming With Sharks And Rays In Belize

We ventured ashore to beautiful Belize today. In order to keep from disturbing the Belize Barrier Reef, cruise ships anchor out in the ocean rather than pulling in to port. This made the disembarking procedure a bit more involved than usual. We had to head to one of the lounges to wait to be dismissed for a ferry to take us to shore. We hadn't counted on having to wait for a ferry, so we were late for the excursion we had booked with Thankfully, our guide, Natalie, was still waiting for us when we arrived  30 minutes after our arranged time. She walked us over to a pier where we got on another boat and jetted off to Caye Caulker, one of the small islands off of mainland Belize that make up the country. We pre-ordered lunch at Fantasy Dining and then hopped back onto the boat to do some snorkeling among the coral.

This wasn't an "official" Carnival excursion. Carnival does offer a similar Shark and Ray snorkeling tour, but we had read that they pack people in shoulder to shoulder and hurry them along. For just a little bit less than the Carnival price, we booked a private tour with We figured that our young children would handle things better if they didn't have to compete with the rabble for attention.

Even though we had bought full face snorkel masks for our youngsters, we weren't sure how they would handle the experience. Thankfully, Natalie took charge and handled them. They loved every minute of it. We saw quite a few different species of fish, including some barracuda. After a quick swim around the reef, we got back on the boat and headed out to Shark Ray Alley. The youngsters, having heard the word "shark" didn't want to get into the water. The rest of us jumped right in, though. Thanks to my Samsung Galaxy S8+, I was able to take some underwater pictures of the nurse sharks and the rays that wait around for the various tour boats to chum the waters. I did have to breathe a sigh of relief whenever I saw a boat overpacked with other tourists pull up. I have to say it again: For less than the price of the Carnival endorsed excursion, we got a private tour.

 After having tons of fun among the sharks and the rays, we got back on the boat and went out to feed sardines to a group of tarpon. Tarpon are sport fish common to the area that grow to be about 6 feet long. They look a lot like herring. Each of us took a turn holding a sardine just above the surface of the water until a tarpon jumped out and took it from our hands. My daughter and her friend were suitably horrified at the prospect of holding a slimy fish while another, larger fish jumped out of the water to pluck it out of their hands. Myself, I didn't want to lose a finger, but I braved the encounter and wound up with all of my digits still intact. My boys thought the whole thing was hilarious.

Our lunch at Fantasy Dining, just off the pier was much better than I had expected. Pressed for an answer to what I wanted, I ordered chicken nachos under duress. They were really good, but my son's order of fish and chips was so much better. My wife got the snapper which she said was really good and my daughter got her usual go-to dish of chicken fajitas which she seemed to enjoy. My oldest son got a hamburger as did my daughter's friend. As good as the food was, the view is what really made lunch a fantastic experience. Eating good food, looking out at the ocean behind the palm trees. This is the life. After lunch, we spent a little time on the beach where the boys collected sea shells and coral.

To borrow a local expression, the whole day was un-BELIZE-able and we'd love to be able to do it all again.

Tuesday, December 12, 2017

What To Do In Cozumel...

Margaritaville. Jimmy Buffet sang about being wasted away and searching for his salt shaker in it. I always figured it was a state of mind rather than an actual place. But, no, it's apparently an actual place. Upwards of thirty places, as it turns out (the one featured in "Jurassic World" doesn't count). Jimmy Buffet's Margaritaville restaurants, owned by Buffett's Margaritaville Holdings LLC (a subsidiary of Cheeseburger Holding Company, LLC) has become a popular restaurant chain in tourist destinations all over the globe. And we had lunch at one today in Puerto Maya, Cozumel. Why eat a a chain when there are cheaper, less tacky, tastier local options? Because we have kids and kids want familiar food no matter what country they're in.

If You See Fidel, You're In The Right Place
For a tourist trap, the cruise terminals at Puerto Maya are really quite beautiful with a lot of photo ops. There are a lot of shops for you to buy cheap souvenirs and there are also restaurants that serve something closer to "authentic" local cuisine. Aside from the odd pushy kiosk vendor here and there, it's a nice place to spend some time. But, if you're a little more daring, you can find cheaper souvenirs, better booze, more authentic food and a little adventure if you simply wander outside of the terminal a little. Just across the street from the Carnival terminal is a place called Tequila Flavours. The beer is cheap, the margaritas aren't watered down, the food is good and the ambiance is nice. I sat down and shared some cips and guac with the girls. I had a few beers and they had Mexican Coca-Cola. They noticed a difference in taste from the American version right away and I explained how Coca-Cola is sweetened with cane sugar in most of the world, but sweetened with high fructose corn syrup in the United States. I don't care what John Pemberton says, I can taste the difference.

Sunday, December 10, 2017

Setting Sail Again

Happy Holidays, everyone!

We're on the Carnival Dream tonight ready to head on out to a beautiful seven-day Caribbean cruise. We had so much fun last year, that we thought we should do it again. We will be visiting Cozumel, Belize and Honduras. This time, armed with the knowledge we gained from last year's experience, we're sure to have a great vacation.

New food options on the Carnival Dream this year include Guy Fieri's Burger Joint and Guy Fieri's smokehouse, the Pig and Anchor. I've promised not to do any impressions of Mr. Fieri while eating.

We've chosen to forgo the Cheers and Bottomless Bubbles packages this year. In order to come out ahead on the Cheers package, one would have to drink 10 beers or 6 mixed drinks. That's certainly possible on any day that you spend all day on the ship. However, if you get off the ship in order to check out a port, you're likely gone for at least 5 hours. That dramatically cuts down on drinking time and you'd have to be really dedicated or majorly stressed out in order to hit your target. The kids didn't make much use of the Bottomless Bubbles last year, as they were happy with the free lemonade and iced tea.

We booked two excursions in advance, one with Carnival and one with a private company.  We'll have to see which excursion provides the better bang for our bucks.

Tuesday, November 28, 2017

Pain Relief Scammers Call Me

A lady from some fly-by night pain relief insurance fraud scam called me. She told me that I was "eligible" for some kind of medical device. I asked her how she knew I was illegitimate. Did she know my mother? When she tried to explain, saying once again that I was "eligible"I asked her what my being unable to read had to do with my pain situation. She then switched to the word "entitled" which I took even further offence to.

Thursday, November 9, 2017

United Breast Cancer Foundation Calls Me. Again.

What sort of organization employs a call center that spoofs their CallerID and uses not one, but TWO layers pre-recorded operators in order to solicit people? The answer should be obvious, but, I'll spell it out just in case: Any organization that employs these tactics is much more interested in separating you from your hard earned money than they are in actually helping you or anyone else out. This brings me to the United Breast Cancer Foundation. I've dealt with them before, earlier this year, and they had been calling me about three times a day for the last two weeks. Usually, when I would answer, they'd just hang up. Today, however, they connected and I was met with Alice, that familiar robo-voice.

There must have been some kind of lag Alice's programming, because when I picked up the call, she didn't identify who she was calling for. She was already mid-way through her pitch when she started telling me how she hoped that the ladies could count on my support. She never mentioned the United Breast Cancer foundation. And when I asked for a representative, she put me down for a $30 donation! She forwarded me to "Jen from verification" which was another pre-programmed robo-voice! After saying "representative" over and over again, I finally got kicked over to a "manager" who was an actual living, breathing person working at a call center.

Andrea picked up the phone, and I wasn't sure that she was actually human. Through her intermittent gum-smacking, I asked her to prove to me that she was human. Andrea actually works for a call center service named "Associated Community Services" and, when I asked her how she felt to be soliciting donations on behalf of an organization that spends only 6% of the money they raise on actually helping people, etc, Andrea tried to beg off. She eventually tried to say "They are helping out as many people as they can". I couldn't abide by that bullshit. In the midst of my berating her, Andrea said that she had indeed looked up the United Breast Cancer foundation, which, if true, shows me that she's content to make money off of working for charities that are questionable at best.

And why is that? Well, one doesn't really have to wonder why Andrea feels that way, considering that she works for Associated Community Services, an organization that ran afoul of the Michigan Attorney General and had to pay a settlement after a cease-and-desist order. In 2015, three Michigan based cancer fundraising organizations erroneously portrayed themselves as charities with financial programs for cancer patients that provide pain medications, transportation and hospice care. Guess which call center they used? Associated Community Services. You might be seeing a correlation here.

Wednesday, November 1, 2017

Papa John Blames NFL For Low Pizza Sales

Papa Johns pizza sales and stock price have been falling recently, and company executives think they know why. "Papa" John Schnatter, founder and CEO of Papa John's International Inc puts the blame squarely on the controversy over NFL players kneeling during the National Anthem. Papa Johns, the official pizza company of the NFL, has a deal with the league and with 23 teams. Company executives believe that fallout of the National Anthem controversy has resulted in many NFL fans boycotting the pizza chain "The NFL has hurt us", Schnatter said during an earnings call on Wednesday. "We are disappointed the NFL and its leadership did not resolve this." This coming from the guy that complained that the Affordable Care Act forced him to raise prices and then a week later promoted a one million pizza give away. Company executives also blamed the increasingly competitive restaurant environment and temporary store closures caused by hurricanes for weak sales.

Personally, I think that while boycotts may have been a small factor, the overall cause of declining sales at Papa Johns is due to the fact that it has become a sub-par product. One of the first things a company needs to do when sales decline is to look inward. Domino's Pizza is a fine example. Here's a company that realized it was putting out a below middling product and allocated the time and capital necessary to improve upon it. And they ended up making a product that tastes good (for a chain store) and can be cheaply and quickly produced. They also implemented some technological innovations. Their web ordering app is the standard by which similar companies are judged.

Papa Johns needs to do some research on how to improve their product and update their ordering process. And, while they're at it, they need to do something with their commercials. Maybe hire a spokesman. I'm personally tired of seeing that douche-nozzle Papa John on every commercial they company does. It worked when the first did it ages ago when the touted Papa John's as a one-man success story, but the guy has become a caricature.

Monday, October 30, 2017

Let's Play Sid Meier's Pirates: Part II

This is Part II in my Let's Play: Sid Meier's Pirates series. When last we saw the dread pirate Nerdbeard and his intrepid crew, they had just uncovered buried treasure. In this episode, we follow the crew as they face famous pirates bent on revenge, uncover clues about the location of Nerdbeard's sister, fight the dreaded Baron Raymondo and attack a few Spanish held towns along the Caribbean. Some harsh truths about playing on the Apprentice level are also revealed.

Friday, October 27, 2017

More JFK Assassination Files Released

The National Archives released about 2,800 records related to the assassination of President John F. Kennedy late last night. In a move that will only fuel the conspiracy theories,  a number of government agencies prevailed upon President Trump at the 11th hour to block about 300 further documents. Agencies seeking to have those documents blocked have until April to report and reconsider their reasons for blocking those documents.

Meanwhile, there's not much of note in what got released last night. Obviously, there's no smoking gun and no flat-out confessions from members of shadowy intelligence organizations. Still, there are a few nuggets in the docu-dump. Here's a list of some of the more interesting documents revelations:

  • A local British newspaper received an anonymous call about "some big news" in America 25 minutes before President John F Kennedy was assassinated. A memo to the director of the FBI, dated November 26 1963, noted that an anonymous phone call was made to the senior reporter at the Cambridge News at 6.05pm on (12:05pm Central Time in the U.S.) the day Kennedy was shot. The caller said only that the Cambridge News reporter should call the American Embassy in London for some big news and then hung up. After the word of the President's death was received the reporter informed the Cambridge police of the anonymous call and the police informed MI-5

  • An FBI memo discussed Lee Harvey Oswald's "Fair Play For Cuba"activities. A document from the FBI office in New Orleans indicates that an FBI agent was keeping up "with Cuban sources" for information relating to the Pro-Castro "Fair Play for Cuba Committee," which Oswald was a member of. The document says that the committee appears to have gone dormant since Oswald left the area, and that the "Dallas Division for information" is searching for Oswald. It says that if Oswald has relocated to Dallas "he may inaugurate an FPCC branch in that area."

  • The FBI received a call at its Dallas office threatening Oswald's life the night before he was shot and killed by Jack Ruby. The report says "We at once notified the chief of police and he assured us Oswald would be given sufficient protection. This morning we called the chief of police again warning of the possibility of some effort against Oswald and he again assured us adequate protection would be given. However, this was not done." The report goes on to mention J. Edgar Hoover's suspicions that Jack Ruby was an "underworld" figure "with the reputation of being a homosexual."

  • The Soviet Union believed Kennedy's death was the result of a conspiracy. An FBI document discusses how the Soviet Union reacted "with great shock" to the assassination of Kennedy. The assassination shocked Soviet diplomats who preferred Kennedy as President because they held him in such high esteem and that they knew little about Lyndon Johnson. Some within the Communist party believed that the assassination was in fact a coup initiated by the "ultraright." They were also worried that a rogue US general might use the lack of leadership to fire a nuclear weapon at the Soviet Union. The memo goes on to state that Soviet officials had denied any involvement with Lee Harvey Oswald, who had briefly defected to the Soviet Union years before: "They described him as a neurotic maniac who was disloyal to his own country and everything else." The KGB believed Oswald to be unstable, in part owing to his suicide attempt while in Soviet custody.

  • Fidel Castro denied involvement in the Kennedy assassination. A report from the House Select Committee on Assassinations, which was formed in 1976 to investigate the killings of President Kennedy and Martin Luther King, Jr, says that the members met with Cuban dictator Fidel Castro, "who assured the Committee that neither he nor his government had any involvement in the assassination of President John F. Kennedy."

  • Dallas Police Officer J.D. Tippett was accused of being the real assassin. An FBI document discussed an alleged conversation between an informant and H. Theodore Lee, where Lee indicated that previous members of the Fair Play For Cuba Committee had said that Patrolman Tippett (who had been murdered by Oswald about 45 minutes after the JFK assassination) had met Jack Ruby and an unnamed third party at Jack Ruby's night club a week before the assassination. 
So, what's the takeaway from this? Well, it certainly seems to torpedo the theory that the Soviets had anything to do with the JFK assassination. And the recently released documents don't do anything to advance the theory that Castro had anything to do with it. The theory that Lee Harvey Oswald was a CIA agent who went rogue and the CIA covered up any connections he had to the agency in order to avoid embarrassment still has some legs, though. Also worth noting is that there doesn't seem to be anything in these documents indicating direct evidence of a second shooter.

Wednesday, October 25, 2017

Terminator 6

After the disappointing box office returns of Terminator: Genisys, the rights to the Terminator franchise have reverted back to its creator, James Cameron, who wrote and directed the first two films. Now, Cameron says that he's pushing forward with Terminator 6. And, in order to fix the franchise, he's going back to basics and Terminator 6 will ignore all the movies after Terminator 2, which is smart, because everything since that movie is a complete mess. In Terminator 3, Sarah Connor dies, John Connor becomes some kind of drifter and Judgement Day happens in 2004. Terminator Salvation spins out of Terminator 3 where it shows us the post-apocalyptic world that the adult John Connor lives in and the movie was so bad that my brain had mercy on my and managed to forget most of it. But, then there's that TV show, the Sarah Connor Chronicles which follows a terminally ill Sarah Connor as she protects John from wave after wave of terminators who just can't seem to get the job done. And, of course, Genisys just sucks. Terminator fans are used to retcons, right?

So, Terminator 6 will pick up from Terminator 2, but what can we expect? I wouldn't be surprised if it's a tale about a killer robot driving instructor who goes back in time for some reason and has to make a choose whether his best friend lives or dies (his best friend is a talking pie!). Maybe the film will go back to its roots and just feature an unstoppable killing machine from the future hunting down and attempting to kill Sarah and John. Or maybe the Terminator's target will be Kyle Reese this time and Sarah and John are tasked with protecting baby Kyle. I feel, though, that, at its heart, the original Terminator movie was a horror film. It just needs to be about a deadly game of cat and mouse between the terminator and its target(s). There target doesn't even have to know about the future war against the machines. No need to explain time travel paradoxes or Judgement Day or anything else. No relying on special effects to push the story and no excessive super heroics from our protagonists.

Barring that, I'd like to see Terminator 6 definitively end the franchise altogether. Let's see the final defeat of Skynet and its last ditch attempts to take out the human resistance via time travel. Once the terminator in 6 fails in its mission, that's it. Skynet is gone and the franchise ends on a hopeful note. But, no. We know that won't happen. Why? Well, to paraphrase what Kyle Reese said in the first film: "Listen and understand: Those are movie producers out there. They can’t be bargained with. They can’t be reasoned with. They don’t feel pity, or remorse, or fear. And they absolutely will not stop, ever, until they've milked every last penny out of this franchise".

Monday, October 23, 2017

Let's Play Sid Meier's Pirates

Recently, the folks over at Humble Bundle gave Sid Meier's Civilization III away as a free download via Steam. Or course, I couldn't help but get in on the deal. I haven't played it yet, but it reminded me of another one of Sid Meier's games: Pirates. Sid Meier's Pirates was released in 2004 as a remake to a game that came out in 1987. I remember playing Pirates on my old Tandy 1000 back in those days, and the newer version has been a big favorite as well.

Your character is a man whose family was imprisoned by the evil Marquis de la Montalban. Fortunate enough to evade capture, but left penniless on the streets, your character signs on to a sailing vessel to travel to the Caribbean to seek his fortune as a privateer and perhaps even rescue his family. You sail all over the Caribbean attacking ships, sacking towns, dueling enemy Captains and charming the ladies.

In Part I of my Let's Play: Sid Meier's Pirates, I go through creating a character, getting licensed to privateer from various countries, attacking enemy ships, fencing against enemy ship Captains, trading with merchants, obtaining higher ranks and finding buried treasure.

Friday, October 20, 2017

Why Zero To The Power Of Zero Is One

While speaking with my daughter about her math homework earlier this week, we got on the topic of exponents and the proper expression of 00 (That's zero to the power of zero or 0^0). The inclination is to say that 00 is undefined because of two distinct math laws that seem to contradict each other: 

  1. Any number to the power of zero is 1.  
  2. Zero to any power is 0. 

Before I get into any explanations, let's keep in mind that I'm not even close to being a "real" mathematician. I use a lot of math in my computer programming background, but, really, I'm just a dad who has a burning hatred for this so-called "common core math" that teaches math by rote rather than by theory. 

Dividing Exponents

We know that, when you multiply exponents with the same base, you add the exponents:
  • xa * xb = xa+b
And, when you divide exponents with the same base, you subtract exponents:

  • xa ÷ xb = xa-b
So, under the law of dividing exponents, x5 ÷ x5 = x5-5 = x0 = 1
Plug in a value for x, and remember that any number divided by itself is 1: 25 ÷ 25 = 32 ÷ 32 = 1

Aha, but you can't divide by zero, right? So 05 ÷ 05 = 0 ÷ 0 = ????

Almost Zero

If we can't divide by zero, how close can we get? Using the exponent calculations below, you'll see that, as the base and the exponent get closer to zero, the product approaches 1.

It could certainly be pointed out that this doesn't directly prove that 00 = 1, but if we want the xx function to be right continuous at 0, then 00 must be 1.

How We Think About Division

We tend to think of multiplication as addition of stacks and division as subtraction of stacks. Exponents are then shorthand for the multiplication or division of the stacks of the same amount. In order to get to the bottom of this 00 question, we have to alter our way of thinking about multiplication and division. Instead of seeing them as tools of addition and subtraction, we have to try to see it as ways to map elements on a grid. With that in mind:

  • 2 = 32 ways to map a 2 element set to a 5 element set. 
  • 20 = 0 ways to map a 2 element set to a 0 element set
But there is one way to map a zero element set to a zero element set. A zero element set is an empty set, so when you map an empty set to itself: The identity function which draws a line straight through coordinates 0,0. 

Wednesday, October 18, 2017

Helen Henny and Mr. Munch Call It Quits

CEC Entertainment, the parent company that owns the Chuck E. Cheese chain of pizza restaurants (Where a kid can be a kid and where an adult can be a complete assclown), recently announced that they are retiring Munch's Make Believe Band from its restaurants. The company believes that the animatronic band is too outdated to retain the modern child's attention for very long. A dance floor will be put in its place so that kids can rock out in their own way.

Munch's Make Believe Band, which featured Chuck E. Cheese, Helen Henny, Mr. Munch, Jasper Jowels and Pasqually, had been created from the bones of Showbiz Pizza's band, The Rock-afire Explosion in the aftermath of the acquisition of Chuck E. Cheese by Showbiz Pizza. Chuck E. Cheese had filed bankruptcy in the wake of the Atari crisis in 1983 (since the restaurant was basically an Atari-exclusive arcade that served pizza ) which allowed Showbiz Pizza to buy them out and then unify the brand under the more recognizable Chuck E. Cheese name. The new band members were just frankensteined onto the robotic hardware of the old ones. This sort of imagery is likely one of the influences for the popular mobile game Five Nights at Freddy's.

Since decommissioning of Munch's Make Believe Band began last month, ensembles have begun popping up for sale on Ebay and Craigslist. One has to wonder what an 80s-ers animatronic band would go for. Maybe 100,000 skee-ball tickets? No, that's barely enough to buy one of those plastic spider rings these days.

Still, if the price is right, it sounds like a perfect opportunity for someone to open up a real life Freddy Fazbear's Pizza on the cheap. I'd imagine that finding someone to work night security might be an issue. Personally, if I happened to get hold of one, I'd mock it up to look like an Bullwinkle Moose knock-off, put it on my front porch and program it to say "Sorry, folks! We're closed for two weeks to clean and repair America's favorite family fun park. Sorry!" whenever someone rang my doorbell. Maybe Disney Theme Parks could buy a few bands and put them in the Country Bear Jamboree or make them the house band in the Hall of Presidents.

While we're on the topic, I'd like to mention two things related to the Rock-afire explosion. First, is the excellent documentary on the band, its creator and its long-time fans:

The creator of the Rock-afire Explosion, Aaron Fechter is keeping busy and is keeping the band alive for the fans. He occasionally makes videos of the Rock-afire Explosion covering modern songs. Whether or not you're a fan, you have to admire the dedication Aaron Fechter. The programming and maintenance alone likely involve a significant investment in time and energy. Here's a video of the band covering Cee-Lo Green:

Monday, October 16, 2017

Using Portals In No Man's Sky

Have you found all 16 glyphs yet? Do you have a portal address that you'd like to travel to? Well, beware, because there are still a number of dangers that await you on the other side. Still, if you prepare yourself with the right supplies, you might just be able to survive the journey. 

It goes without saying that, if you want to use a portal, you'll have to find one first. In order to do that, set up a Signal Booster on whatever planet your base is on and look for a Monolith. Head over to the monolith and interact with it. Depending on which race controls the sector your planet is in, the Monolith will ask you for either a Gek, Vy'keen or Korvac artifact. If you happen to have one in your inventory and want to give it up, the Monolith will reveal the location of a portal to you. When you find the portal, you'll have to charge the buttons with various ores and oxides. Once that's done, be sure to ask the portal for your planet's address, just in case. Then, enter the address of the planet that you want to go to and the portal will open. If you're just going for a quick exploration mission, no worries. However, if you're of the mind to stick around on the planet, you will run into trouble. 

It seems that the makers of No Man's Sky don't want players to use portals as a means for permanent travel. Once you're through the portal, you'll find that you cannot access your ship or summon your freighter. Worse, if you travel to a depot or any other colonial outpost with a landing pad, you'll find that no ships will land there so you won't be able to buy a ship to continue on with. And if you happen to find the location of a crashed ship, there will only be a beacon there. But, don't worry, there's away around this mess. It just takes some preparation. 

Before you go through the portal, make sure to pack up your base. Deconstruct everything and put them in your base containers. Then, deconstruct the containers. Don't worry, your stuff will still be in there when you re-create them later. Make sure you have in your inventory the materials necessary to make a signal booster and an exocraft. Then, fly your ship over to the portal and walk through it. Once you're through, set up the signal booster and have it search for a habitable base. The one I found was a 9 hour walk from the portal I came through. Create an exocraft and drive towards the habitable base. Using the Nomad exocraft cut my estimated travel time down to 2 hours. Luckily, I found another habitable base about 10 minutes into my journey. Once you find the base, claim it. Then, travel back to the portal and go back through it. Get in your ship and fly up to the space station in that sector. Go through the transport tube to your new base and your ship will follow you. 

My own portal adventure got me to within 650,000 light years of the galactic hub. Still a long way to go, but a nice shortcut. There are portal addresses out there for planets within the galactic hub, just use your Google-Fu.

Friday, October 13, 2017

The Orville

During its initial marketing phase, Seth McFarlane's pet sci-fi project, The Orville, was sold as Star Trek: The Next Generation meets Family Guy. And, while there are definite comedic moments in the show, it's really more of a sci-fi drama with comedic elements. You might even argue that, with so many Trek alumni being involved at some level, it's a spiritual successor to Star Trek: The Next Generation.

The Orville follows the exploits of Captain Ed Mercer (Seth McFarlane), his first officer and ex-wife Kelly Grayson (Adrianne Palicki) and the rest of the eclectic crew of The Orville, a small exploratory ship in service to the Planetary Union. Their adventures involve dealing with the dangers of outer space, hostile alien civilizations as well as the common, sometimes comedic problems of every life. Critics, for some reason, absolutely hate the show while the general viewing public seems to like it. Personally, after five episodes, I'm a fan, despite some of the heavy handed comedy. Well, that, and, every time I hear Captain Mercer, I think of Brian from Family Guy.

Comparisons with Star Trek: Discovery are inevitable since the two shows are both undergoing their first seasons this year. The Orville is easier the more optimistic and light hearted of the two shows which, to me, puts it more in line with Gene Roddenberry's vision of the future. Star Trek Discovery, while entertaining and engaging seems to have lost that direction four episodes in. And, if there was any doubt that The Orville is carrying the torch for Star Trek TNG, notable Trek alumni like Brannon Braga, Robert Duncan McNeil and Johnathan Frakes have all lent their talents to the show in some form. We can't be too far off from a Patrick Stewart cameo.

Overall, if you're looking to get your Trek fix, I think that The Orville is more in line with what you're looking for. If you gravitate more towards Ron Moore's Battlestar Galactica, then Star Trek: Discovery fits that bill.

Wednesday, October 11, 2017

No Man's Sky: Find All 16 Portal Glyphs

I've been playing No Man's Sky since The Foundation update. I picked it up used for $10. Considering the number of people who dumped the game just after launch, I probably paid too much. Still, I've found it to be entertaining enough. It's a tough game to classify. It tell my son that No Man's Sky is "Space Minecraft" with an emphasis on exploration rather than building.

The latest update, Atlas Rises, added portals to the game. Portals can transport you to any planet so long as you know that planet's address. It's a lot like Stargate in that you dial up the planet's address using glyphs on a rotating ring. Once the glyphs are entered, a portal opens up within the ring. The catch is, in order to dial the glyphs, you have to "discover" them first. You may be able to see a flying whale glyph on the metal ring, but, unless you've actually found the glyph, you can't dial it. It's like an old touch-tone phone with all the buttons on the keypad removed. I order to call someone, you'd have to find the buttons and put them on the keypad.

Alas, Poor Krepptik! I Hardly Knew Ye!
Finding glyphs can be a tedious process. They're found in the graves of dead Travelers. Those graves are generally found in caves and they look like an Atlas symbol. You can stumble upon them while exploring a planet, or, if you encounter a Traveler in a planetary building or a space station, you can ask them where they came from and they'll tell you where their grave is for 100 nanite clusters. After encountering 16 Travelers during your journeys, you'll have found all 16 glyphs. That could take a while, and it'll cost you a total of 1600 nanite clusters. Thankfully, there's a shortcut that will take you only about 2 hours and will cost you only 100 nanite clusters. You'll have to exploit a glitch in No Man's Sky in order to do it, so let's hope that by the time you've read this, Sean Murray and the No Man's Sky development team haven't patch the glitch yet.

Aren't You Supposed To Be Dead? 
Keep jumping to various systems and checking out their space stations until you find one with a Traveler in it. The Traveler will just be hanging out among the other races in there. Talk to the Traveler and listen to them. Choose the nice conversation options. When the conversation ends, talk to them again and ask them where they are from. It'll cost you 100 nanite clusters. You'll be directed to a grave on a planet within the system. Go to it, extract the glyph and place a beacon nearby. Then head back to the space station. Go to the galactic trade terminal and buy something. Get back into your ship and head back to the beacon that you placed by the Traveler's grave. The grave will have been reset and you can loot it for another glyph. Repeat this sequence until you've got all of the glyphs. The glyphs do not repeat, so you'll only have to do the sequence 16 times. It took me about 2 hours to get all 16 glyphs.

Sunday, October 8, 2017

Star Trek Discovery

Star Trek: Discovery (aka DSC) premiered a few weeks back, first on CBS proper and then continuing onward on CBS All Access in the U.S. and Netflix everywhere else. Set 10 years before the five-year mission of the Enterprise under the command of Captain Kirk in the "Prime" (non-reboot movie universe), DSC follows the journey of Michael Burnham, a human woman who was raised by Sarek (Spock's father) after a Klingon attack left her orphaned. The show is served as geek-bait in the United States in order to get Star Trek fans to subscribe to CBS' brand new streaming service, CBS All Access. As much as I like Star Trek, there's no way I'm paying $6 a month to watch a show that doesn't release all of its episodes at once and contains commercial breaks to boot, especially when the rest of the world can watch it via Netflix. There are ways around that model, and I took the path of least resistance and wondered why I even bothered.

I've stuck with the show through 4 episodes and my general feeling is that, while it's a pretty decent show overall, Star Trek: Discovery doesn't really feel like Star Trek. Or, at least, it doesn't feel like
Prime Universe Star Trek. Discovery feels more at home in the universe created by the J.J. Abrams movies (the Kelvin Universe), both in tone and in visual style, but, there's likely some legal issues keeping CBS from placing Discovery in that Universe. With that being said, I like that, for once, we're being given a main character that is fallible. Burnhman makes mistakes and there are immediate, long-term consequences for them. Despite her mistakes, I don't feel that Burnham is irredeemable and I'm hoping that part of her journey on Discovery involves her path to redemption (and, by extension, the redemption of the Discovery crew). Even though the visual change in the Klingons is jarring, I appreciate the the people behind the show are giving us an alien species with a lot of diverse looks. For too long, Star Trek has given us alien species that all look alike when it makes more scientific sense that there'd be a bit of variation. I don't have a real issue with the overtly militaristic bent of Starfleet, nor the judgemental nature of the side characters. I feel like those traits are coming straight from DSC producer Nicholas Meyer, the man behind Star Trek II: The Wrath Of Kahn and Star Trek IV: The Undiscovered Country.

What I am having a hard time grasping is the reasoning behind setting the show 10 years before Kirk's five-year mission. Four episodes in, there doesn't seem to be a compelling reason why Star Trek Discovery has to be set in the "past" as opposed to the "future" (10-100 years after Star Trek: Nemesis, the last Prime Universe movie). Indeed, the updated visuals, theoretical technology and Klingon motivations would make a lot more sense if were set in Star Trek's future rather than the past. So far the only reason I can come up with is that Kirk and crew is the pop culture focus of the Star Trek franchise, so TPTB wanted to be able to drop as many references to it as possible (Did you hear Michael mention her foster brother? She knew Spock! Squeeeee! Oh! And Captain Lorca has a pet tribble! Double Squeeeee!). So far, it seems that most of what has gone on with DSC could be done 100 years after Nemesis without any major changes to the storyline.

Overall, I kind of like what I've seen so far with Star Trek: Discovery. Is it good enough for a $6 a month subscription? No. Would I binge watch it on Netflix? Yep.  Is it worthy of the Star Trek name? The jury's still out. So far, I don't see much of the optimistic future that Gene Roddenberry envisioned when he created Star Trek. But I'm keeping an open mind. I hope it shows up eventually. That's part of what Star Trek is about, isn't it? Hope?

Friday, October 6, 2017

Rebooting The Dark Universe (again)

Movie industry reports have indicated that "The Bride of Frankenstein", which was to be the successor to "The Mummy" in Universal's Dark Universe franchise, is being pushed back for retooling.  This really comes as no surprise considering the abysmal performance of "The Mummy" at the box office.  This is yet another kick in the balls to the Dark Universe which has had a number of false starts over the years beginning with "Dracula Untold".

Personally, I don't understand the point of creating a shard universe of monsters. Universal keeps pumping money into making movies that connect with each other, but what's the payoff? Do all of the monsters get together in some big team-up film and do the Monster Mash together? Perhaps Dracula accuses the rest of the monsters of copyright infringement because the Monster Mash borrows too heavily from his Transylvania Twist. Then, a gritty law drama plays out involving 19th Century copyright law, questions of legal standing regarding laws from a country that no longer exists as well as the concept of "life of the artist" as it possibly pertains to "undeath of the artist". Dracula wins the case and is awarded back royalties which then go to pay off his legal fees, thus proving that lawyers are the root of all evil in the universe.

I guess that Universal could do a team-up film that's an Avengers/Suicide Squad mashup. The Nick Fury character (a Van Helsing) brings the monsters together in order to fight an even more sinister evil. The monsters could easily be shoe-horned into equivalents on the Avengers team:

  • Dracula is like Captain America, having slept since the late 1800s and he has to try to re-integrate into the world.
  • The Mummy is Thor 
  • Frankenstein is the Hulk, obviously.
  • Wolfman is Iron Man.
  • Invisible Man is Quicksilver (What, you didn't SEE that coming?)
  • Creature From the Black lagoon is the Scarlet Witch.
  • Phantom of the Opera is Black Widow

So, Van Helsing puts the team together and they're tasked with stopping something/someone from unleashing the ancient source of Evil which would turn our dimension into the Dark Universe, the universe where Evil reigns. They're each tempted along the way with how the rule of the Dark Universe would help them, but they resist and defeat it. Then, they break their bonds and escape back into the world until they are needed again.

Honestly, the big problem with Universal's Dark Universe is that it's putting their monsters in big budget action movies starring 50 year-old actors. They need to think smaller and do a $40 million horror film with some comedic elements. They need to rely on the psychological aspects of horror rather than CGI-fest destruction. They need to invest in the story first and make universe building secondary. The shared universe should be little more than an afterthought. Just having crossover films would work, doing something akin to Monster Squad on a more serialized scale.

Ultimately, I'd want to see horror comedy crossover films starring Seth Rogan and James Franco doing their best Abbot and Costello impersonation. Scenes for "Seth Rogan and James Fanco Meet The Mummy" practically write themselves:

[A desperately horny and impossibly high Seth Rogan eyes up The Mummy and debates with Franco on whether or not she's do-able.]

Franco: Do her! Take one for the team.
Rogan: She's old! She's like.....two hundred years old!
Franco: That just means she the ultimate cougar.
Rogan: Yeah, but what if it means her lady parts are all wrinkled and dusty?
Franco: Well, if you can't get her juices flowing down there, then I don't know what to tell ya.
Rogan: I didn't bring any condoms! What if she has some ancient STD or something and I end up as patient zero spreading the ancient Egyptian equivalent of The Clap?
Franco: Are you kidding? She's all wrapped up already! You're good to go.

I think that there's some potential for the Universal monsters, it's just that Universal has to get the dollar signs out of their eyes and lower the scale of the movies. While the franchise has some life in it (pun intended) it doesn't have the potential to make Avengers-level dollars. But, with lower budgets, personal stories and better writing, the franchise still stands to make a respectable pile.

Wednesday, August 9, 2017

Glen Campbell Is Dead

You probably know him from that old song "Rhinestone Cowboy" which has become somewhat of a joke in popular culture today. The song title conjures gawdy images of white trash egocentrism, but, the lyrics are much deeper. It's a song about a musician who has paid more than his share of his dues yet still perseveres in the hopes that one day his star will rise and shine bright. The song is very much a product of its time, but the theme behind it is universal.

What you probably didn't know is that Glen Campbell was a truly talented guitarist, so much so that he could still rip a riff well into his 70s. He had a number of hit songs such as "By The Time I Get To Phoenix","Gentle on my Mind" and "Galveston", any one of which any musician would give their picking arm to have in their catalog. But his influence has been greatly understated because of one cheesy song.

Glen Campbell received quite a bit of renewed interest in his career recently thanks to the documentary "I'll Be Me", a stark, intimate, honest look at his suffering from Alzheimer's. Campbell's last studio recording, "I'm Not Gonna Miss You", was featured on the soundtrack which won a Grammy for "Best Compilation Soundtrack for Visual Media". If you've never listened to Glen Campbell's music before this is a great opportunity give a listen to his greatest hits. Even if you're not a fan Country Music, Campbell's particular style is very accessible.

Godspeed, Glen. You went out like a rhinestone cowboy, riding out on a horse in a star-spangled rodeo.

Wednesday, July 26, 2017

A LinkedIn Cold Caller

About twice a day, I'll get a call from an anonymous caller with a heavily accented person on the other end asking me if they can send me a free tech white paper. These scammers troll through LinkedIn looking for IT professionals with managerial or teaching positions so that they can compile a list of leads. The reason why they want to send you a white paper is so that they can confirm that your e-mail address is legitimate and active, which is important if they're going to put you down as a lead.

Normally, when I get one of these calls, I'll just say "Please hold, I'll transfer you..." and then I leave the call on hold until they hang up. Sometimes I'll pretend to transfer them to different people while I do a different voice for each one. Today, I gave them Clovis' number. 

Clovis answered and when the caller said she was from CTO Advice Frontier, Clovis assumed her last name was Frontier and that she was calling about an open Help Desk trouble ticket. Clovis pretended to check on her ticket and then warned her against repeated porn surfing which was likely the cause of her trouble ticket. The rep beat a hasty retreat off of the phone. 

Monday, July 24, 2017

RIP Microsoft Paint

Microsoft's upcoming Windows 10 update, referred to as "Autumn", promises a host of brand-new features. One feature, however, is slated to be done away with. Microsoft Paint, which has been a staple of Windows since Windows 1.0 debuted in 1985, has been added to the list of "features that are removed or depreciated". What this means is that, while Microsoft Paint may not be removed immediately, active development on the program has been halted and it's only a matter of time before it's removed completely.

I can't say that it comes as a complete surprise to me. After all, MSPaint has been surpassed by several other third party programs out there, specifically as well as Microsoft's own Paint 3D. Still, Microsoft Paint is a simple, useful program. I still use it to save screenshots I've taken via the old reliable [PRT SCRN] or [ALT][PRT SCRN] method. And it's still the easiest method for quickly resizing JPEGs without having to pay through the nose to use Adobe Photoshop. And it's still the best program available for making low effort MEMEs.

Again, MSPaint isn't going anywhere....for now. But, if it should disappear, there are a number of good free alternatives to the plucky little program that might help you get over the shock:

  • Paint.Net - An overall solid replacement
  • IrfanView - Great for resizing and cropping
  • Gimp - A full featured, near Photoshop program

Thursday, July 13, 2017

United Breast Cancer Foundation Calls ME

I got a robo-call from the United Breast Cancer Foundation today. When I first answered, I got a pre-recorded voice with a decent response algorithm. It actually asked for me by name and responded "you're harder to get ahold of than my grandchildren". Once I realized that it was a robo-call, I started asking for an operator and the algorithm eventually directed me to a manager. That's when the fun began.

I asked the manager if he had actually met "Alice" the robo-voice. The manager said that he had. I replied by asking i  Alice was "available", as I felt I was making some headway with her. The manager tried to explain that Alice was pre-recorded but I kept after trying to get a date with her, making as if I didn't understand what he was talking about.

The United Breast Cancer Foundation has no independent board members and is run entirely by a single family. More than half of the money they raise goes directly to pay for more fundraising activity and only about 6% of the money they raise goes towards direct financial assistance to those in need. Even worse, if you apply for a grant, you have to pay a $50 application fee. Daily Kos rated them #4 on their list of 50 worst charities. With a rating like that, I have no qualms messing with people who are unfortunate enough to have to call on their behalf.

Wednesday, June 28, 2017

SNES Classic Is Coming

Coming in September is the Nintendo SNES Classic. The standalone mini console will feature 21 games, including Super Mario World, Earthbound, Super Mario Kart, and The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past. It will retail for $79.99, but, if supplies of the console are anything like its predecessor, the NES Classic, you can expect to pay upwards of $200. To be fair, Nintendo has promised to produce more of this console than it has of the previous one, but, time will tell.

Here's the full list of games that will come with the SNES Classic Edition:

  • "Contra III: The Alien Wars" 
  • "Donkey Kong Country" 
  • "EarthBound" 
  • "Final Fantasy III" 
  • "F-ZERO" 
  • "Kirby Super Star" 
  • "Kirby's Dream Course" 
  • "The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past" 
  • "Mega Man X" 
  • "Secret of Mana" 
  • "Star Fox" 
  • "Star Fox 2" 
  • "Street Fighter II Turbo: Hyper Fighting" 
  • "Super Castlevania IV" 
  • "Super Ghouls 'n Ghosts" 
  • "Super Mario Kart" 
  • "Super Mario RPG: Legend of the Seven Stars" 
  • "Super Mario World" 
  • "Super Metroid" 
  • "Super Punch-Out!!" 
  • "Yoshi's Island"
Personally, I'm not too terribly keen on having to slog through lines in Wal-Mart just to find out that some hoarder who had been up since 2am swooped in and took off with 8 consoles. Besides, the controllers are wired and the pre-installed titles are quite limited. Better to stick with an Android box with wireless controllers and an SNES emulator. 

Monday, June 19, 2017

Pizza Cones

My son presented me with what he considers to be the ultimate Father's Day gift: A pizza cone kit. And you know what? It's a pretty cool concept. What pizza lover wouldn't like to have a fun, portable method for eating pizza? Think of a pizza cone as a pizza pocket (calzone to us Chicagoans) with one end open. Only, it's smaller and more portable. We set our right away to make some pizza cones to enjoy for lunch. There was a bit of a learning curve involved, but, ultimately, I think we did pretty well.

To start out with, you're going to need some pizza dough. For the ultimate level of fun, you should make your own, but refrigerated pizza dough from a can will work in a pinch. We went with some generic dough from Wal-Mart. If you use pizza crust from a can, then you'll want to make sure that you have some flour on hand. Pizza dough from a can usually comes out much too moist. Toss some flour on that dough in order to soak up the moisture so that it will be much easier to knead and cut the dough.

Once your dough is prepped to your satisfaction, roll it out with a rolling pin. You're going to want to be careful here to make sure that it's thin enough to cook properly, but no so thin that your pizza ingredients will bust though the crust. Your crust will have to be wide enough to accommodate the dough shaper. We were eventually able to get two crusts cut out using the can of refrigerated dough that we had bought.

One you have your crust cut out, you're going to have to fold it over into a cone-like shape and crimp the open edges shut. Back when I worked at a mom-and-pop pizza place, we crimped the edges of our calzones by pressing down on them with a fork. Most pizza cone kits come with their own crimper, though. For extra stickability, moisten the edges of your pizza cone dough before your crimp them. What you'll end up with looks something like a Smurf hat. You'll have to carefully place your pizza cone crust around the cone shaper that is included in the kit. It can get very tricky here, so make sure you don't stretch the dough too much when you're doing this, otherwise you'll end up creating flaws or holes in your crust. It'll probably take you a few minutes to crimp and shape your pizza cone crust, so this would also a good time to pre-heat your oven to 400 °F. Make sure you put your crust on a pan when you cook it just in case disaster strikes.

Our first attempt at making pizza cone crust was a failure. The dough was too moist and we rolled it out too thin in places. Gravity won out and pulled the crust down to the pan that we had set the cones on in the oven. We were able to salvage these sorry excuses for cones by shoring them up with some of the unused dough. What came out wasn't very pretty, and was a bit chewy, but it worked and tasted fine.

One you've cooked your pizza cone crust for about 8 minutes, get them out of the oven. Let them cool off a little bit before you start adding your favorite pizza ingredients. How you add your ingredients is up to you. I'm sure that there are a variety of different ways to handle it. Personally, I try to coat the entire inside of the cone with some sauce to begin with. Then, I fill the cone about half way with sauce, add my ingredients and then cover them with sauce. I add some more cheese and toppings to the top of the cone. Once you've got your ingredients in, place your cones on a pan (once again, to make sure that any mess from disasters is minimized) and put them back in the oven (you didn't turn it off, did you?). Baking time is going to depend on how many ingredients you put in the cone and how thick your crust is. Once your ingredients are golden and bubbly, it's time to take your cones out. Again, let them sit for a bit in order to cool off.

Once you're done, you've got yourself a delicious portable pizza that you can hold in one hand, leaving your other hand free to hoist a beer or use the remote.

Thursday, June 15, 2017

Imagine That - Yoko Ono Gets Writing Credit For Lennon Tune

Nearly 50 years after John Lennon released his classic song, "Imagine", his wife, Yoko Ono, is officially getting a co-writing credit on it. The surprise announcement was made at yesterday's meeting of the National Music Publisher's Association in New York City. During an interview in 1980, Lennon said that "Imagine" took inspiration from passages in Ono's 1964 book, Grapefruit and said that he should have credited the composition to Lennon-Ono. "There's a lot of pieces in it saying imagine this or imagine that," Lennon said. "I know she helped on a lot of the lyrics but I wasn't man enough to let her have credit for it. I was still selfish enough and unaware enough to take that contribution without acknowledging it. I was still full of wanting my own space after being in the room with four guys and always having to share everything".

As a Beatles fan, I'm pretty ambivalent about this. Even if Yoko isn't my favorite person in the world, it's just a song writing credit. It doesn't change the message of the song or the musicality. I do, however, appreciate the irony in Yoko pushing for credit after threatening to sue Paul McCartney for wanting to change the writing credit on some Beatles songs to "McCartney-Lennon" rather than "Lennon-McCartney".

Adding Yoko to the credits is also significant because it would extend the copyright of the song and keep it out of the public domain longer. A song enters the public domain 70 years after the death of its last songwriter. With Ono still being alive, the copyright for Imagine will still be generating royalty money for her great grandchildren to enjoy. One also has to be reminded of Paul's shenanigans with writing credits on his Ram album. Paul had been suing the Beatles at the time and, as a result, his royalties were held up in trust until the lawsuit was resolved. In order to generate some much needed revenue, Paul decided to give his wife, Linda, a writing credit on several of the songs he had been writing at the time. Paul explained, "Well, look! If my wife is actually saying 'change that' or 'I like that better than that' then I'm using her as a collaborator. I mean, John never had any input on The Long and Winding Road, and Yoko still collects royalties on it. You've gotta flow with these things. The joke at the time was that Linda was the only one getting paid in our household, because we were all held up with Apple being subject to litigation! I wasn't seeing any money.... Every businessman I had ever known was suing me. I felt, 'I'm damned if she's not gonna get paid for it; I'll put in a bill for her services!' They weren't major checks, but it was the only money we were seeing because she was the only one free of all contracts in our house".

There's certainly a segment of die-hard Beatles fans who will take issue with this, especially in light of how Yoko has torn down John's legacy before while building herself up in the process. For example, Yoko's editing of the Madison Square Garden concert video in which she used the inferior matinee show rather than the superior evening performance. She also cut away from John during some of his better moments in order to feature herself pounding on the keyboard (which wasn't even plugged in). And  there are a handful of Ono fans who will hail this as a great vindication of her talents. I think, though, that most of us are going to be taking the "not our monkey, not our circus" stance.

Wednesday, June 14, 2017

Another Credit Card Scammer Gets Told To F--- Off

I've certainly mentioned this before, but it bears repeating: If you get a call from a company claiming that they can lower the interest rate that you pay on your credit card, it's most likely a scam. The companies behind the sales pitches claim to have special relationships with credit card issuers, which supposedly is whey they can negotiate such low rates for you. They guarantee that the reduced rates they offer will save you thousands of dollars in interest and finance charges, and will allow you to pay off your credit card debt three to five times faster. In order to keep you from mulling over the offer for too long, they claim that the lower interest rates are available for a limited time and that you need to act now (if they have a special relationship, why would you have to act now?). Some even use money-back guarantees as a further enticement. Of course, you have to pay a fee up front in order to get in on the deal.

The truth is, people who pay for these services don't get the promised interest rate reductions, don't save the promised amounts, don't pay off their credit card debt three to five times faster, and struggle to get refunds. It's also illegal for these companies to charge a fee to a customer before they settle or reduce your debt. So, if you're looking to reduce or re-negotiate your credit card debt, you're better off doing it yourself. And, I hate to say it, but if a company is outsourcing their call center to a foreign country that employs people who speak with very thick accents, you're likely dealing with a fly-by-night operation.

Below is the latest recording of me telling a rep from one of these companies where to get off.

Friday, June 9, 2017

James Comey Likens Himself To Saint Thomas Of Beckett

I listened to former FBI Director James Comey as he testified before Congress yesterday. The media had been making the event out to be The Superbowl Of Congressional Testimonies but I knew that there wouldn't be much in the way of revelations. If there's anything to be revealed, it won't be in a public hearing. However, my ears did perk up when Comey likened himself to Saint Thomas of Beckett. It's an interesting comparison, one I think I know a fair amount about. For those of you who don't know the St. Thomas of Beckett situation, I'll explain it the best I can and draw the parallel that Comey thinks he sees.

In the 12th Century, Thomas Beckett had been working in the household of the Archbishop of Canterbury. He proved to be very good at the tasks that the Archbishop gave him, so he recommended Beckett to King Henry II (aka Henry The Plantagenet, subject of the famous play "The Lion in Winter" in which I, myself, once acted) for the position of Lord Chancellor. Thomas Beckett did so well in that position that, when the Archbishop of Canterbury died, he was nominated and confirmed as the new Archbishop. King Henry II was thrilled that he now had a man on his side in the office to approve of his morally questionable decisions. Problem is, while Beckett may have played loose with the Bible beforehand, he seemed to become a true believer once he became Archbishop.

A rift developed between the King Henry II and Thomas Beckett. Thomas Beckett refused to endorce the King's behavior, and, in turn, King Henry II spread lies and false allegations in an attempt to ruin Thomas Beckett's reputation. The breaking point came when Beckett excommunicated a number of bishops for crowing Henry The Young King as heir apparent, which circumvented Beckett's right of Coronation. Upon hearing of this, King Henry II is reported to have said "Will no one rid me of this turbulent priest?" in the presence of four of his knights. The knights interpreted the phrase as an order and assassinated Thomas Beckett. It did not have the effect that the king desired. Thomas Beckett was venerated as a martyr and was canonized as a saint a mere two years after his death. Meanwhile, the King tried to deny that his phrase was to be taken as an order yet made no attempt to arrest the knights who assassinated Thomas Beckett.

And that's where we come to President Donald Trump and James Comey. Like Thomas Beckett, Comey has been exiled (fired and politically neutered), and defamed (Trump referred to Comey as "That nutjob" and called into question his job performance). I don't know how martyrdom would translate to the modern era, but I'm sure a case can be made for it. For me, though, I see another parallel, one that doesn't quite fit with Comey's interpretation, but one that's important all the same. According to Comey, President Trump had been trying to have Comey pledge his loyalty and ultimately said, in reference to the Michael Flynn investigation, "I hope you can let this go". Trump has denied that the conversation ever took place. However, his surrogates say that Trump uttered the phrase as a sincere hope that Flynn would ultimately cleared by the investigation not as an order to Comey to drop the investigation. Comey has testified that he interpreted the phrase as a veiled order which would be obstruction of justice.

So, where are we legally? Can one reasonably interpret the phrase "I hope you can let this go" as an order? Context and nuance are key here. Even though Trump didn't say "I order you to drop the investigation", courts have ruled in the past that similar phrases can be seen as direct orders. Witness the stereotypical mob enforcer phrase: "This is a nice business you have here. It'd be a shame if something happened to it". No threat is made in the literal sense, but the implication behind it is well known. Whether this leads to anything with Trump is anybody's guess at the moment. My own thought is that, unless tapes of the conversation exists (which Trump has alleged via Twitter) it'll just boil down to "He Said/She Said" and that won't be enough to prove obstruction.

Tuesday, June 6, 2017

My Dominos Pizza Rewards Account Got Hacked

I was half asleep last night at about 11pm when I heard my phone buzz. I looked over at it and saw the notification from Dominos that my order was on the way. I hadn't ordered anything in my sleep since that Ambien incident back in my college days, so I figured that the notification was a delayed e-mail from a previous order I had made from Dominos. I opened the e-mail and, sure enough, someone had ordered two pizzas at 11:06pm from a Dominos halfway across the United States from me. I thought perhaps the person who ordered accidentally used my e-mail address, as it's similar to a few others out there and is occasionally fat-fingered. I logged into my Domino's account to be sure and, unfortunately, someone had gotten into it, redeemed the two free pizza rewards that I had built up and made an order. What kind of world are we living in when someone will be petty enough to steal a man's pizza?

The phone number to the store that the pizzas were ordered from was listed on the order receipt, so I called them up and asked them to cancel the order. The manager told me that I was too late, that the pizza purloiner had already picked it up. The order had come in at 11:06pm and I called the store at 11:22pm. That's just about 15 minutes, which is the average cook time for a Domino's Pizza. The guy must have gone to pick it up just after ordering it. I asked the manager if he could refund my points, but he said that only corporate could do that. Okay, not a big deal. It's just pizza, and I honestly don't begrudge some pizza to someone else who might need it more than I do. It's what the manager said afterwards that pissed me off:

"Yeah, I thought it was probably fake since your account is based in a different city and the name on the order is 'The Pizza Man'. We get about one of those per week". So, he suspected it was a falsified order, yet he didn't call the number listed on it to verify? Had he done so, he'd have been met with a non-working number and he could have then called my phone number which was still listed in the account profile. But, he's just a manager, and it's just a couple of pizzas and it's probably not worth the effort. I completely understand.

Apparently, back in December of 2016, Dominos notified their customers that their MyDominos site may have been compromised and that everyone should change their passwords. I must have somehow missed that e-mail. Rather than filling up everyone's SPAM folder with those requests, Dominos should have made the change mandatory to all customers upon logging into their website. But, that obviously didn't happen.

I called Dominos corporate this morning and got the issue straightened out and my pizza rewards refunded.

Here are a few tips that you should use with every restaurant website in order to make sure that, if you ever do get hacked, the damage will be minimal.

  • NEVER store credit card information. I know it's convenient, especially if you order often, but if someone does access your account and charges food to your credit card, you'll have to deal with two companies instead of one

  • Redeem your rewards ASAP. If there are no rewards available, there's no reason to hack your account. 

Thursday, June 1, 2017

Hands On With The Samsung DeX Station

One of the big selling points of the Samsung Galaxy S8 and Samsung Galaxy S8 Plus is that they are the first phones to feature the Samsung Desktop Experience (DeX). All you need to do is purchase the Samsung DeX station which is a hockey-puck looking dock that features an HDMI connection for display and sound, an Ethernet port, and two USB 2.0 ports. Unfortunately, if you usually keep your phone in a case of some sort, you'll probably have to take it off in order to put your phone onto the DeX Station. I'm sure Samsung will eventually remedy this by selling "DeX Compatible" cases for the S8 and S8 Plus. And forget about trying to use a generic USB-C adapter with HDMI and USB. I tried that. The Hoo Too adapter that I use to extend my Chromebook Plus screen to an external monitor and add USB devices doesn't do the job. Something must be embedded in the DeX Station itself must be triggering the phone to jump into DeX mode.
DeX Station: Inspired By Wayne Gretzky?

Imagine being on a business trip, sitting in your hotel room and you've got some last minute work to do. You could drag out the laptop or the tablet if you bothered to bring them along and hope that they have enough of a charge to power up. Or, you can hook up Samsung DeX to your Galaxy S8, plug an HDMI cable into your hotel television, connect a USB keyboard and mouse and start working on that PowerPoint presentation or that Excel spreadsheet. If you need to do something that requires a bit more processing power, Samsung suggests that you connect to a remote desktop via Microsoft Remote Desktop or VMWare Horizon View. Once you connect your phone, to the DeX attachment, it'll start running in DeX mode and you'll be presented with a desktop interface:

Kinda bland looking, right? Looks like Samsung is trying really hard to get you to use that piece of bundled bloatware that they call a browser by any means necessary. Not to worry, though, because you can customize your desktop by arranging icons, putting apps in the taskbar and changing your desktop wallpaper.

Marvelous! Now that's what I call a heroic desktop. Now, let's get to work. One of the first things you'll notice is that a lot of apps aren't expecting to be expanded up to the size of a desktop. If you launch such an app, like, Goat Simulator, it'll just occupy a phone-sized portion of your desktop:

Well, this really breaks my immersion. And it turns out that a lot of Android games aren't exactly optimized for playing with a keyboard and mouse. My poor goat couldn't get himself turned around via keyboard controls. With a few other games, I found that the mouse curser is too small to register as a finger-touch so many pop-up menus can't be dismissed. And Netflix hasn't yet caught on to what Samsung DeX is doing, so the Netflix app doesn't scale up to full screen either. You can try going to Netflix through Chrome but that will only kick you back over to the Netflix app. I suppose you could change your browser identification to make it look like you're coming from a Windows machine and that might work, but I didn't want to mess with that.

In order to minimize these sort of compatibility issues, Samsung keeps a list of "DeX Optimized" apps, the Microsoft Office apps being chief among them. They open full screen with no problem, although the Android apps are just glorified web browsers wrapping around Office 365. And, for movies, Google Play Movies works great.

Now, you might eventually ask what happens if a phone call comes through while you're on DeX. Well, the call will come in, you'll get a notification on the screen and you can answer the phone via speaker or bluetooth headset or you can pull the phone out of the DeX Station and answer it like normal.

One further thing I feel the need to mention is that, after bombing out with Netflix, I tried to connect my Passport drive to the DeX Station so that I could watch some movies that I had ripped. It seems that the USB 2.0 on the DeX Station was powerful enough to nudge the drive awake, but, ultimately, my Passport drive wouldn't spin up and so DeX couldn't mount it. Bummer. It works just fine with my Chromebook Plus. There's probably a way around this, but I suspect that if I did manage to get DeX to mount the drive, VLC would not open up full size to play the movie anyway.

To sum the whole thing up, I'd say that, for right now, Samsung DeX is all work and no play. It's still a fairly new thing, but, if it catches on, more and more apps will come out with DeX support. I think that once DeX starts to get a little more widespread support it'll be an amazing experience.