Sunday, September 30, 2007

Blades of Glory—Review

It's a Will Ferrell movie.

That's how all his movies are defined and for the most part it's pretty accurate (except for Stranger Than Fiction).

This one is reminds me of Talladega Nights, which I fell asleep an hour into it.

It's not that I'm not a Ferrell fan, but his kind of humor doesn't evolve from movie to movie, from decade to decade. It's like watching Saturday Night Live.

Ten years ago.

There were actually a couple of funny moments here, no thanks to either of the leads (Napoleon Dynamite is the other lead). There is a sequence where the man-on-man partnership on the ice is ridiculed, and one "fan" shows a hot dog bun with two wieners in it and says "It's just not natural," or something like that.

That was pretty funny.

The other moment is reminiscent of The Pamchenko Maneuver from that old-school skating movie where the hockey player and the ice-skating girl get together (this movie is basically a remake of that movie, The Cutting Edge, but with two guys).

Grainy footage shows a pair of skaters in Korea trying to do the move and he ends up decapitating his partner.

That's the other funny part.

The last 20 minutes or so were pretty entertaining because I kept trying to think of a worse movie. I didn't fall asleep, I didn't turn it off, I watched it all the way to the end. So I figured there had to have been something worse.

So those 20 minutes went by pretty fast. Then it was over and Mindy and I looked at each other and gave each other a visual "WOW."

As in, Wow, that sucked.

Wow, that was not funny.

Wow, I may be done with Will Ferrell.

Perfect Stranger—Review

This one is starring Halle Berry and Bruce Willis, so it's kind of like "Ok, I don't really remember hearing a lot of buzz about this movie, but it can't be that bad if those two are in it."


I was shocked when Halle Berry won her Oscar for her role in Monster's Ball, all she did was shoot a pretty crazy fake-sex scene. Other than that, not much to it. This movie really doesn't show how well Halle Berry can act. She is certainly not Oscar caliber in my performance, but she's way better than this. And honestly, so it Bruce Willis.

This movie feels like a midnight-on-USA type movie, only the "fucks" and curses aren't edited out with ridiculous voice acting. The script is terrible, the dialog is cheesy, and the acting is abhorrent.

The whole time I was thinking to myself, "This movie was written by either the female lead (who is a journalist/feminist wannabe) or the male half-lead (nerdy computer guy who never gets the girl but is deep down disturbed).

I settled for the latter. The words that are put into the females in this movie sound like something out of an old comic book. In fact, that's probably where this guy who wrote the story got it from.

Lame lame lame.

The ending is an attempt at a "you'll never guess this" twist, which was successful for the most part, but then I read that there are three other alternative endings that have each one of the other main characters as the "bad guy." So the producers just picked the most surprising ending, figuring that it was the only thing that would make this totally cliche and awful, which it still is.

This is the most fabricated, unauthentic movie I have seen in a long long time. The characters are hollow and the plot is thin. Stay away.

Monday, September 24, 2007

Comerica Park

Got to go on Sunday to one of the newest ballparks around.

It was awesome. The fountains in center field spray up really high when something cool happens. There is a loud growl sound (a Tiger, I assume) that is played when something good happens. The fans were all very polite and pretty pumped when Joel Zumaya came in.

It was a gorgeous day too.

I used some binoculars to check out the field and I was impressed at how well kept the grass and infield was. I would do anything to play on a field like that just once.

My record at Comerica: 1-0.

Now we can add Comerica to the other parks I've been to: Wrigley, Fenway, wherever the California Angels played back in the day, and The Cell. That's not that many actually.

Thursday, September 20, 2007

Call Me by Your Name

You know how some books/stories have titles that are kind of buried in the middle somewhere and when you finally get to it you're like "ahh, there it is. I get it"?

This book does that but it also does something reminiscent of the short-story genre, something I think is great when it's well done but is becoming more and more rare. In fact, I can't remember when the last time was that I saw it: the last words in the book are the title, again.

Here is the funny sidestory to this book: I knew very little about it, a glowing review on the Amazon Book Blog got me pointed in its direction (from the AMZ Blog: it may be the best account I've ever read of what it's like to want someone--especially when that someone may or may not want you back.) and I decided I would give it a shot. The author sounded vaguely familiar but the book itself wasn't on any best-selling lists and wasn't receiving any hype. So it was a shot in the dark. An underdog.

I went to the library to find it and, knowing it was a novel, looked under fiction. Not there. So I went and asked at the front desk.

"Oh, you want to go to our Gay and Lesbian section," and she walked me there.

"Heh, I guess that's what happens when you don't know what the book is about."

She wasn't buying it. It felt strange checking out a book from the Gay and Lesbian collection. Before that I was under the impression I was simply reading a potentially very good novel.

No worries, because that's exactly what I got.

The book centers around a 17-year-old kid at his parents' summer home in Italy. He falls in love with one of the boarders, a 24-year-old American professor working on his manuscript.

It felt like the reading was going very slow at the beginning, and that's because the writing is so enjoyable I was really taking my time going through it all. It's the best writing I've encountered so far this year.

The book made me reflect on memories of my own childhood/adolescence and the way looking back on them can be so enjoyable and mournful.

I'm realizing now that I'm not in the mood to review this book right now, so I'll stop and maybe come back to it. I just finished it yesterday and I'm still kind of digesting the thing.

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New Blog

I ran across a new (to me) personal-finance blog called The Simple Dollar that is great, easy reading. The guy behind it had some troubles and he managed to overcome them. Now he's sharing his insight with everyone else.

What I really like about it is he's a regular dude, no fancy talk. I also like that, because of his whole financial journey, he discovered something that seems totally random about himself: he loves to cook. It's become a real passion of his and you can see the enthusiasm when you read the blog.

It's a classic case of getting someone being so infatuated with a subject that it rubs off easily. He had me on Amazon looking at the cookware/books he recommends.

Monday, September 17, 2007

Ripping off senior investors

The article is about the scams that are out there looking to grab senior-citizen's money. You've seen the infomercials on there about the Indian guy who made $3,000 in 15 minutes on his first trade without knowing English really well and on and on.

But as I read through it all I could think of was the 401k meeting we had at our job a few weeks ago. The company in charge does a little presentation every year to show us how everything works (to educate us, supposedly), for those that don't know about/care investing.

Which is great. I'm all for it. I had some questions I was curious about myself.

So after the woman goes through the presentation, the "main guy" steps up to kind of show his face (I'm assuming he's our executive contact) and tells us how great a job they are doing handling our retirement money.

A few things: I've read their whole menu of options and realized that they have one true index fund. Just one. Now, historically—if you read up on this issue—the majority of managed funds will not beat an index fund. So you pay less expenses and your money is well diversified. It's the big draw behind index funds.

So I start reading the details of each investment option we have (they have life cycle funds, which I think is perfect for most people. Conservative maybe, but ideal for most) and I'm noticing something very strange: most of their options are function like index funds but their expense ratios (their cost) are high like managed funds.

Turns out that that, for any given fund, 80% of it is tied to an index and the rest is managed. That means that with 80% of the money the manager is given, he just treats it like an index, which takes no skill at all. Then with the other 20% he tries to maneuver in such a way that he/she can beat the index.

It's a scam and I couldn't believe it.

So I raised my hand and mentioned it, "This is a two-part question. First, why do we have only one index fund and two, why are so many of the other funds 80% index funds but then we still get charged for an actively managed fund?"

A few things: this questions made me feel pretty good about myself. I was pointing out an injustice and I was also showing off how much more I knew about this stuff to my co-workers, who I was really helping out here, I thought.

The executive stepped forward, staring at me like I had just impregnated his virgin daughter, and said something to the effect of, "Why would we do that? Index fund? It doesn't make any sense to have a whole bunch of index funds in there. For us or for you. Our clients continue to come back to us, for our business, because we have"—and here is where I cringed and wanted to stand up and yell something out to everyone— "historically beaten the indexes."

This is something no fund manager could EVER get away with saying in a room filled with other managers unless he had the proof on a slide. Of course, I was being given the death-laser look so I just backed down and nodded my head.


I already knew the answers to all these questions. Of course they don't want index funds. They can charge 0.30 % for an index fund (which is still a little high for a standard S&P 500 index fund) but for their other funds they'll take over 1% of your money (A LOT) and tell you they are making sure that you are "beating the indexes."

It's the greatest job ever because when people get their statements and if they bother to check up against the indices and say "Whoa, wait a minute, why didn't you beat the index this year?" they can just say "It was a bad year for the economy, the elections got in the way, the war, etc. etc.

A week later I cut my contribution from 6% back down to the maximum matching of 4%. The hell I'm giving these people any more of my money than I have to.

Anyone else have good work/investment stories?

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Slack Away

My favorite article of the week and probably one of the biggest misunderstandings between employees and employers.

Credit Cards, ad nauseum

So here we are again, railing at credit-card companies as if they were drug dealers preying on young people. Are they? Sure. But this is like the guy who sued McDonalds because he was fat.

People, credit cards are willing to give you money if you play it right. They are willing to give me $350 dollars (around every two years) worth of points (be it in cash, travel, and so on) for just using my card a lot. It costs me nothing. No debt, no interest payments, no late payments, none of that.

I think we need to enter into an era of education about a lot of things. Where the US is on a map, how to handle money, how to drive, etc. There are a lot of things, but if people would just understand, from a very young age, how important it is that they be taught these things, it would make a huge difference.

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Thursday, September 13, 2007

New Yorker the Food Issue

This should be called the Foreigners issue instead. All it is is foreign writers writing about their experiences with food in their countries. Why is it so blatant? Is food only interesting to write or read about when it comes from some exotic place? Have they no faith that an American writer can write about some hometown cooking in an interesting way?

This has been, by far, one of the least enjoyable/interesting issues I've gotten.

The Raw Shark Texts

This was one of those books you see on the outskirts of the media's book coverage. You see it in one place and you think, "That sounds interesting, I've never heard of this book/author."

Then time passes, you forget about it, and someone you know mentions it.

"Oh I saw that one, did you read it? No? Me neither, but doesn't it sound good?"

Then more time passes and eventually you'll see it mentioned somewhere else, again on the fringe. Now you're excited. Two fringy mentions tell you that it isn't mainstream—it's too unique for it to really be embraced by the masses, but it's good enough and intriguing enough for you to have spotted it twice.

So you take a chance.

I went on Amazon for this one and read the first few pages.

The movie Memento immediately comes to mind. I though "Cool." I love anything interesting where memory is played with.

So I read it.

The person who I had discussed it with asked me how it was. I said, "First it's cool, like a Memento, then it takes a turn into very abstract, very metaphysical, then it's like a detective/mystery novel for a while. Later a love story is at its center, a cheesy, cheesy, romance-novelish story. Which was awful. Then it goes back a little to the Memento type stuff for a little while before it just ends on a not-so-satisfying note."

It's on the fringe for a reason. But it's the type of book you have to read because, statistically, it means you'll expose yourself to really great books that aren't touted in the media. Sometimes you have to get through the duds though to find them. I'm glad I did because now I'm reading what could be one of the most well-written books of the year for me, Call Me By Your Name, and it too was a fringy book I took a chance on.

So it's all good.

New Books

So lately I've been thinking a lot about how we discover new books and what prompts us to read them. Right now I'm reading Call Me By Your Name, which I found via the Amazon Book Blog, which is great.

I use Amazon a lot when I'm considering new books. I'll read the reviews, I'll read the user reviews, and if it has the feature, I'll take a look at the first few pages and see if I like it. Then I'll check to see if the Chicago Public Library system has it (usually they do, unless it's a really new book).

Then I'll add it to my Wish List on Amazon as a way to track which books I'm interested in reading.

I used to have a list like that on a sheet of paper but it's so messy and it got lost a few times. It's much easier to handle it on Amazon.

So Amazon, which I sometimes use to buy a book I really liked or really want, is very useful to someone like me, even if I rarely buy from them.

PS. Here's another way we take a chance on books: I went to the library to request Confessions of an Economic Hitman for me and A Thousand Splendid Suns for Mindy (which I too will read) and a Japanese woman helped me. When I asked for Hosseini's book she said:

"Ohhhhh, very good, very good. Hiss first a book, a Kite Runner, sooooo good. Sooo good. You read a this and you think 'He a cannot write a better, impossible.' Hosseini, he is doctor. Training as doctor. No writer. He come from Afghanistan when was nine."

Here she let out a guffaw.

"I think impossible! How a man write so good who is doctor and in other language! Impossible!"

So now of course I'm going to read Kite Runner. It was on the list, but it just jumped way up on the priority chart. It's one of those things that, if I see enough passion and enthusiasm from someone about something, I will want to look into it myself and see if I too will feel some of that magic.

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New Place

So I've moved from Lincoln Park in Chicago (here) to Lakeview, which is further north. That's not much of a difference, but now we (Mindy and I) live on Lake Shore Drive, which is right on the lake (here). And the two areas, close as they may be, are very different.

The most obvious is that we are now ON the lake. Not closer or with a better view, but we are right on the lake. Although our view is pretty good too (whenever a commercial comes on I just turn my head slightly and stare at the lake, the sailboats, the harbor—it's better than most commercials).

The differences: the people are older. More families. More older people. Even in our building you can feel the difference. It's a very nice building and most people in it you can tell have high standards of where they are supposed to live.

The word snobby comes to mind, but it's not quite right. Just more sophisticated. Less in touch with their goofy side. Older.

You walk down the street and instead of seeing people casually dressed, you feel like they have all taken it up a notch. It's weird for people like us because we are pretty simple, or at least we feel we are. So it feels weird. It was tough to adjust when we first moved in—it was like it was too nice a place for us.

But let me tell you, feeling a little weird at first in exchange for the view, the space, the pool, the gym, the grilling area on the 40th floor—I'll take it.

Also, we are right up close to Boystown, and I've never lived this close to it before.

I had visions of being stared at on the sidewalk or being hit on constantly. But no luck, as I said, I'm a simply guy and I don't think I have that put together look that is so prevalent in Boys Town.

So far the only real moment I've had where I thought to myself, "Of course! I'm in Boystown," was when I was looking around for a place to get a haircut. I saw two guys getting cuts through a window and thought, "Why not here?" The place was called "Great Head."

I walked on.

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Amazon Book Blog

I first got wind of this a month or so ago and it's a great way of discovering new books I wouldn't have heard of otherwise.

I'm very interested in the ways people decide to read certain books and this blog is how I heard of the current book I'm reading: Call Me by Your Name.

I would never have heard of this book and much less given it a shot, but the person who reviewed it on the Amazon blog wrote about it so eloquently and so highly that I just had to read it. That's the mark of a really good review and it makes me realize that when I review a book I'm usually trying too hard to recommend it. This person reviewed it just describing what the book was. Because he wasn't trying to convince me to read it, the review was that much more persuasive.

I need to do this more. I need to try to leave out the inevitable "You should really read this."

Anyway, check out the blog. You should really read it.

Monday, September 10, 2007

Zen and the Art of Archery by Eugen Herrigel

It's the name of a book I just finished.

I'm always interested in how people get exposed to and eventually read certain books, and this one is a good example of how/why it can be so interesting. I'm pretty sure I got it from reading Michael Lewis' The New New Thing. He may have mentioned that this book was on one of Jim Clark's bookshelves.

It sounded interesting, so I checked it out. Is it about Zen or is it about archery? As the book would answer: it's all the same thing. Everything and nothing.

Yeah it can be confusing, and some people might get annoyed at such ethereal talk, but this is an interesting perspective on an otherwise well-guarded tradition that is intentionally difficult to penetrate.

The author was a German philosophy professor back in the day (the book came out in 1953) and he was offered a job in Japan, which he gladly took. He had always been interested in Zen and he figured Japan was the ideal place to learn it. He soon learned that Zen per-se isn't taught. It's "taught" in an indirect way. That is, you need to choose one of the arts—and be instructed in it—in order to "get" Zen. So the guy signs up for archery training with a master and over six years he is taught the art of archery.

Yeah, I know, lots of quotes. It's that kind of a "thing."

The good thing is that this guy is in and gets it, yet he's a Westerner and he understands this stuff won't come easily to us. Which is OK. Zen isn't something you can read about in a book and "get."

But since he's being exposed to Zen teachings through a sport, there are several instances in the book where—as an athlete—something clicks and I know what he's talking about.

Last week I read a quote relating to baseball:

"I've been doing a pretty good job of trying to keep things simple," Pena said Wednesday. "The less you think, the better you hit. Less is more."

Compare this to a line from the book:

"Don't think of what you have to do, don't consider how to carry it out!" he exclaimed. "The shot will only go smoothly when it takes the archer himself by surprise."

This also goes back to something Bruce Lee deeply believed in. In Return of the Dragon, a scene was cut from the released version in which Lee expounds his spiritual beliefs on fighting. It goes something like this:

Question: What are your thoughts when facing an opponent?
Bruce: There is no opponent.
Question: Why is that?
Bruce: Because the word "I" does not exist.
A good fight should be like a small play . . . but played seriously. When the opponent expands, I contract. When he contracts, I expand. And when there is an opportunity . . . I do not hit . . . it (and here he brandishes his fist) hits all by itself.

It's all very cool and Zen and makes you want to learn it. The whole point is that, if that's what you're after, you won't learn it. That is where the arts come in. Arts like archery, sword fighting, martial arts, and even flower arrangement, which the author also gets into.

The idea is that individuals can eventually lose themselves in the "all," eliminating the "I" and achieving a state of Zen.

It's very "new agey" and hard to really swallow. And that's the whole idea behind it. It's like when Marcus Aurelius asks Maximus to be the next emperor and he says he doesn't want to. Aurelius responds with "That is why it must be you!"

That's what appeals to me about it. They aren't trying to actively bring you over to "their" side or convince you they know better than you. "They" is the wrong term here, actually. There is no "they." There is no you or I or any of it. It's all one thing that, if mastered, you can tap into and be a part of.

Zen holds great appeal to hard-headed people like me because it's intentionally hard to penetrate and get through to. It's hard work and requires discipline and sacrifice. Few things do anymore, and I like that.

I have to mention that, if it wasn't for the connections I can make with the stuff in the book in terms of sports, I probably wouldn't care to go any further and explore Zen. I wouldn't have enough to make me believe that any of it could apply to me.

But athletes have all felt those moments of Zen at one time or another. When you stop thinking and just react—letting all those hours of practice take over and just do the work without processing. Reacting according to how you've been trained.

One more baseball-related bit I found in the book. You ever watch Bobby Howry of the Chicago Cubs, the late Rod Beck, Matt Herges, or any of the other pitchers in the big leagues that do it? They have a very particular breathing routing before every pitch they throw. The first thing the author is taught in his archery lessons is breathing. It's the first step to getting your consciousness out of the way and losing your ego, your "I."

If you read this book, you'll find all kinds of connections to whatever art you practice, follow, or are a fan of, be it a sport, a hobby, or any other kind of activity you are passionate about.

Try it, it's only around 80 pages and even though some parts are tough to get through (again, that's the point—the text naturally has to be mysterious, Zen cannot be put on paper), it's well worth the journey.

Here are some parts I deemed worthy enough to highlight:

- "Wrapped in impenetrable darkness, Zen must seem the strangest riddle which the
spiritual life of the East has ever devised: insoluble and yet irresistible attractive."

- "This, then, is what counts: a lightning reaction which has no further need of conscious

- I also like the part about not grieving over bad shots and not getting excited over good shots. The master tells him that you should learn to detach yourself from both of them. You hear
that all the time in long seasons like baseball. "Keep an even keel," "Never get too high, never get too low." Especially with closers: "You have to let it go," "Tomorrow is another day." Are you seeing these connections?

- "But if he is to fit himself self-effacingly into the creative process, the practice of the art
must have the way smoothed for it . . . everything that he does is done before he knows it."
This goes back to what Bruce Lee talked about and to something boxers mention a lot: that
fights aren't won in the ring, they're won during training. Once you step into the ring, you've done all you can to win the fight. There is no more you can do but be, do. Let what you've
prepared for happen.

- "When the tension is fulfilled, the shot must fall, it must fall from the archer like the snow
from a bamboo leaf, before he even thinks it."
This one felt especially close to the golf swing to me. The master is talking about letting go of the shot, but it could easily apply to that
moment in the golf swing when the backswing ends and the swing begins. It's a "feel thing,"
involving tempo and timing. Zen believes you don't shoot, you allow the shot to come when it's

OK I could go on and on. But the analogies are for each person to make individually so they can actually relate to Zen and find out how they can come at it and "feel" it. After all, "Unless we enter into mystic experiences by direct participation, we remain outside, turn and twist as we may."

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Long Time No See

I've been moving in with my fiancee and our new place is almost settles. Moving sucks but we did pretty good. Afterwards it always feels like it wasn't too bad, but I remember: it was awful.

I have some stuff I want to write about, but I don't have time right now.

- The Raw Shark Texts: A weird book that tries to do a lot of different things.
- My current book: Zen and the Art of Archery, and how it relates to other sports like golf and baseball.
- Did anyone catch the special about To Catch a Predator on 20/20 Friday? I missed it, but I have a lot to say about the show and the criticism it's under.

More to come. It's hard to focus with the view I have right now, it's awesome.