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December 27, 2008

Skip It!

My sister got me the WALL-E DVD, which is one of my favorite movies of the year (and I'm still not sure if it beats, is tied with, or just loses to The Dark Knight as the year's best so far, but it is close).

Being that it is a Disney production, the DVD starts with a whole bunch of snippets and adverts that I cannot skip, fast forward, or otherwise get beyond to get to the menu. Disney is by far and away the worst at this practice, but nearly all of the DVD producers do something similar.

It irritates me to no end that I cannot skip these "features" and just get to the movie, the menu, or the special features. I already bought the product, don't beat me over the head with ... more product. These types of things should always be optional and I should always have the ability to press menu, at any time and from anywhere on the DVD, and get the freaking menu to display!

December 25, 2008

Happy Christmas

Yes, you read that right... Christmas.

I'm feeling much more in the spirit today than usual. More than a little of that has to do with my Christmas-loving wife, of course. She has brightened the holiday with a tree, lights, and good cheer to help my usually curmudgeonly self out of my typical holiday funk.

So, happy Christmas. Be safe, be happy, be healthy this holiday, and don't take things too seriously. Relax and enjoy the day.

Now, back to our regularly scheduled rants and ravings....

December 24, 2008

A Small Memory

I recently reread The Westing Game, by Ellen Raskin, because I thought it had in it a scene that I have had in my memory for some time now. It didn't, but this is a favorite from my teen years, so I enjoyed rereading it anyway.
Then I asked my sister, who has a great memory for things she reads. Unfortunately, my description of the scene was just too vague.
Basically, I told her, I remembered a scene where a girl is with a guy who likes to dress up in costumes and he was some sort of detective. The scene in particular is him wearing something on his face and standing behind her while she looks at him in a mirror. She realizes that the thing she thinks is on one side of the face is actually on the other, and this leads to solving the mystery. I also explained that I remember it being written in a similar style to Ellen Raskin's book, which is why I thought it was in The Westing Game.
My sister couldn't remember that scene, but had some suggestions for ways I could search for it and maybe at least narrow down the book list.
In the meantime, M ordered some more Raskin novels from the local library. One of them caught my eye and the moment I looked at the cover I knew-- that was the book!
I read The Tattooed Potato last night. Sure enough, starting on page 55 of the book is the exact scene I remembered; Garson is an artist who is helping the police with some detective work. Dickory is his new assistant. They are trying to solve the case that the Inspector has given them, and Garson paints a mole on his cheek and asks Dickory which side of his face it is on while she looks at him in a mirror. And the realization that she guesses the wrong side due to the reflection allows them to narrow down who the criminal is and gets the Inspector an arrest. And it was written in Raskin's style because Raskin wrote it!
Both are good books and I may add them to my wish list.

December 22, 2008

The Lion, et al

The story in The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe is primarily about the four main characters learning lessons and growing as individuals. There are moments in the book where this is really pointed out, like when Lucy tells Aslan to hold on a minute after administering the juice of the flower berry to Edmund and Aslan getting cross with her and asking if more should die for her brother. Each child learns to grow up (to a degree, as well as literally) and becomes a better, more caring, and more understanding person because of the lessons he or she learns during the course of the story.

(I grant that, if you want to look hard enough, there are religious allegories. However, I would argue that a) those are not the point of the first book and b) that most children, the aim of these stories, will not recognize or get those allegories with the exception of the obvious "Aslan allows himself to be killed for the sins of another and rises from the dead because of it" one.)

In the movie, the makers changed most of the story to be "more visual". As a general rule, I have no argument with that. However, this caused Edmund to be presented as a much more surly and argumentative child than he ever appears as in the book. On top of this, some of the lessons the children learned are glossed over (Peter's learning to be a leader and king/thinking about those beyond his family) or forgotten/left out altogether (Lucy's, mentioned above). Scenes are completely changed or added to, my guess is, give the movie more of a sense of urgency (the children following Edmund all the way to the point of seeing him enter the Witch's house, Edmund in prison with a woeful Mr. Tumnus, changing a battle that is mostly skipped over in the book (because it is not needed to be told-- you are following a different story) into a grand battle shown from multiple perspectives at the end.

In the play, due to the writer's need to condense the plot and "talk down" to the admitted children's audience, they combined much and skipped over even more. For example, Lucy and Edmund both reach Narnia at the same time, but head off in different direction so that Lucy can meet Tumnus and Edmund the White Witch. Susan and Peter come on shortly thereafter and they all meet up. In the story, it is an important point when Edmund has a talk with Aslan after being rescued but you never find out what is said; in the play, their conversation is a duet all about what is said. It is also an important point made by Susan that she and Lucy must never tell Edmund what Aslan does for him as "it would be too horrible." In the play, Edmund goes with them and watches Aslan being killed in his place and then Peter and the Beavers show up and there is a pretty, but forgettable, song about the glory of Aslan and his sacrifice. Lucy once again does not need to learn her lesson with the healing draught. Susan is much less likable for most of the play, and Edmund once more is way overdone in his surliness and bad behavior.

My point in saying this is the same point I continue to make with other source material (be they comic books being turned into movies or simply books being made into movies or TV shows); you are pulling from a certain source material for a reason-- you have a built-in audience with built-in expectations. When you change for change's sake, you threaten your foundation audience. If that audience gives you a bad review, you will not get much if any new audience on top of that foundation. We have seen this to be true on a number of occasions, but a couple stand out to me:
  • The recent horrible, horrible attempt called The Seeker: The Dark Is Rising. They changed so much as to make the much-loved and award-winning novel unrecognizable to the core audience. The word spread and the move absolutely tanked at the home and world-wide box office.

  • Catwoman. Riding high on some hits, DC/Warner Bros decided to go for something with a strong female lead. However, again, they took 60 years+ of source material, threw it out the door, and started from scratch and made something unrecognizable to the core audience of comic book readers. Word got out, movie tanked.

  • Even TV shows are not immune to this. The Starsky & Hutch movie went far from the source material (which was predominantly a lighter drama) and became a full-on comedy; it tanked at the BO.
When producers/writers stay close to the source material, generally modest to large hits ensue. As examples of this:
  • Batman Begins/The Dark Knight
  • Jaws (the original)
  • Harry Potter series
  • Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants
  • Da Vinci Code
  • Spider-man 1 and 2
So, in the end, I am a little disappointed in the first Narnia movie, but not enough that I didn't purchase it. However, I would not go back, nor would I recommend anyone who enjoys the book going, to see the musical. It is important that any version of the story try to include the morals and lessons that are so integral to the story and important to the characters when presenting the story in other media. In the case of the musical, in particular, the writers failed in this.

December 19, 2008

Narnia... Redux

So, this has been The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe month. First, my wife and I read the book to each other (don't laugh, try reading to your loved one in bed and see how he/she likes it). Next, we watched the recent live-action/CGI movie. Tonight we saw a musical "based" on the book.

I need time to fully process what I'm going to say, so expect a further post on this subject in the near future. But I think I can boil it down to this: you are making a musical and/or movie because of the source material. So why would you stray so far from the source to the point where the basic premise and reason for the source material is no longer there?

More later after I digest tonight's show.

It Hurt My Eye!

Being a desert rat through and through I am not accustomed to the temperatures of my new location. It is -12c with a wind chill making it close to -25c outside. We needed gas on the way home and I did the "manly" thing and offered to pump it. I was okay everywhere except my face, where the wind and the shear cold stung so bad it hurt my eye. I put up the hood on my coat, but to no avail; no matter what I did, the incredible cold continued to feel like a weight on my right eye.

My eye is now tender and I have a "headache" directly behind the outside corner where it stung. That is insane!

December 16, 2008

Financial Customer Service Takes a Hit

I have been a member of American Express Blue for, well, a long time. At least 8 years. In all of that time, I have always either paid off the card in full, paid off a sum much more than the minimum amount, or paid the minimum. The few times there has been a dispute on the card, the company has admitted it was its fault and the extra charges or whatever were credited off.

In November, I looked online at my balance due, which was around $42. Now, granted, that was just the monthly payment amount as, with the expenses of everything involved in the lead up to, the moving, and certain expenses since moving, I'm carrying a much larger overall balance than usual. I reviewed my statement, then logged into my bank and sent AmEx $100. More than enough to cover the $42 I saw due and take another small bite out of the overall balance until I find work and can start making more serious payments. As a note, I keep the tab with the CC balance up for reference when I log into my bank account to make the payment, so I can decide how much and review both before clicking Send on anything.

On December 12 I again checked my AmEx statement online. I saw that the balance due was $183, that my payment had a due date of Dec. 28, logged onto my bank and sent the company $200, and thought that was it until my next check/payment cycle in mid-January.

Today, just a little bit ago, I received an email notice that my card was on hold until such time as they received the $183 in full. "What the hell?" I said out loud to no one in particular (M has gone to bed). I immediately logged on to my AmEx account and saw that it still showed $183 due and a due date of Dec. 28. Nothing else on it showed any reason to make me think that anything was wrong with the account.

I called support and finally got to Robert in Past Due Accounts. He told me that my payment of $100 in November was $42 short of the full amount. Which, on hindsight, makes sense with the balance I'm carrying right now. However, when it comes to money and these accounts in particular, I am very careful and I nearly always pay more than the minimum balance. Either my statement in November was incorrectly showing me something, or the company added a late fee, or something happened that caused what I saw online. Robert tried to be helpful but, with the credit crisis where it is, he (and AmEx) were no longer willing to be very helpful. I explained that I had paid the amount due and then some in November, and that I had already paid the full amount due for this month and then some. I wanted my card taken off hold. He expressly refused to do that, but apologized profusely for what he granted was some sort of error or miscommunication between me and his company.

What I am frustrated by is the fact that I told him to scan through my account and see how long I've been a member and if he could find any cases of me not paying at least the minimum every month. He agreed that he could not. He did find a whopping total of two instances where I was late in making a payment (but granted it was by a few days only, so the check was likely delayed in the mail or was too close to the payment due date when sent). He agreed that I was an outstanding customer and commented that he wished more customers had my history. Yet he still wouldn't budge on the issue. My history with the company, being in great standing in general, and his acknowledging that there must have been some sort of typographical or other error which caused me to pay less than the amount due last month made no difference in how I was treated.

I agreed with him that he is part of a business and that a business needs to make money. However, when he started saying, "If we did what you are asking for the millions of customers we have..." I cut him off. I said, "I don't want you to do this for millions of people; I want you to do it for me. Because of my great standing with your company, history of excellent payment, long time use of the card and membership." But he refused.

I understand that AmEx needs to clamp down in these times and that they have to make profits and keep their noses clean to weather the financial storm. However, what the company is choosing to do is lump a bunch of people with excellent credit histories in with the miscreants, thieves, and reprobates that may take advantage. I am now angry with my treatment, angry that the company no longer considers me a valuable resource, and is no longer willing to make me happy as a customer.

But, I think the anger primarily stems from having my good history, my good name, called into question by this company. As if my many years of excellence no longer matters and no longer counts for anything. That's what hurts the most. I have spent years accruing a good financial history in general, a credit score higher than 95% of Americans, and had that all questioned by Robert during our phone conversation. Yes, I know he didn't question it directly, but that was what he was (without his knowledge) attacking when he said there was nothing he could for me.

Then, I can't help but think, why should I bother keeping the good credit history? I already lived through SoCal and watching people who earned half what I did buying houses that were many times what I could afford. People changing cars more often than their hairstyles or underwear. I watched people run up huge credit card bills and then just walk away from them. I saw people use bankruptcy laws as just another part of their financial portfolio. All through it I kept myself clean and above-board and did my best to live within my means. And, today, because of the mess all those other people created (and the financial institutions that catered to them), my history and value as a member of American Express was called into question and I was lumped in with them.

Long story made not too much longer, my bank says they sent the check on Saturday. Which means AmEx should have it Tuesday or Wednesday at the latest, if all works out as it usually does. And my card will be freed immediately.

My faith in AmEx will not be so easily repaired.

Update 12/16/08
Today I received the email that AmEx received my payment for $200 and all is right with my account again. So, on the surface, it seems like much ado about nothing. However, my point is still valid; I am not to blame for the credit/financial crisis in America and I don't appreciate being treated like someone who is to blame. I have a great credit history with that company in particular and in general and should be treated accordingly.

December 10, 2008

I'm Shocked, Shocked I Say!

This is my result of this particular quiz.

Your results:

You are Superman

You are mild-mannered, good, strong and you love to help others.

Wonder Woman
Green Lantern
The Flash
Iron Man

Click here to take the Superhero Personality Quiz

December 7, 2008

Challah Bread

M and I watch a show called Anna and Kristina's Grocery Bags. In this show, the two hosts, Anna and Kristina, take an existing, popular cook book, try out some recipes from it, and then make some recipes on-camera and serve them to a chef who is expert in that genre of food.

During one of the shows, they tried French Toast made with Challah bread. The expert really enjoyed it and said that he won't make French Toast without that type of bread. I told M that I had eaten challah bread before, and that it was a sweeter bread and quite good. M really likes French Toast, so, when she spotted some challah at a store, picked up a loaf with the express intent of me making her French Toast.

Yesterday (and this morning), I set about doing so. Used my usual mixture of two eggs, a bit of milk for thickening, a splash of vanilla for flavor, and a small pinch of cinnamon. Cut three thick slices of the challah (a good solid inch), soaked liberally in the sauce, and put it on a frying pan set to a medium low (about 4.5 on the dial). Cooked them until they weren't wet anymore, but not so much the egg had fried to being "eggy."

M loved it. It was the first time I had used the cinnamon with her (she's not a big fan, and doesn't want it to be overpowering, which I didn't make it). She has since said that challah is the only way to go with French Toast from now on.

I highly recommend it if you like French Toast. Find and use some Challah bread, keep the cinnamon down (only enough to enhance the vanilla, not enough to make it cinnamony), and cook it over medium low heat for a bit longer. It was good enough that even I enjoyed it, and I'm not a huge fan of French Toast.

Give it a try.