Friday, August 18, 2017

They Call it Superior

  I headed north this past weekend to play in the Twin Ports Open chess tournament. I played in this tournament last year (and wrote about it here) in Duluth, Minnesota and had a great time. I had an incredible hotel room right off Lake Superior with a giant boat bigger than the hotel just outside. The hotel was located on a tourist street so there were plenty of places to eat and visit within a block away. The chess wasn’t bad also. After defeating a pair of teenage girls in the first two rounds I drew two of the top six seeds before losing my last round game with second place money on the table. The tournament was so well run and I had such a good time that it was an easy decision to commit early to playing in the tournament again in 2017.

  The decision may not have been so easy if I had made it in February after having my department eliminated and becoming an independent contractor where a day off is cash out of my pocket. My vacation time is built into my hourly rate but it is a mental thing to know even leaving an hour early is leaving cash on the table. The decision to come to Twin Ports probably would have been a no if I had made it in late April after taking on a second contracting job keeping the interface to a government agency up and running after everyone else that knew how to keep it running had also been eliminated by my old employer. The second job takes around 10 hours a week with at least a half hour every single morning and frequently eating into my lunch time and the few hours I have in the evening. Keep in mind that I’m not complaining - I agreed to these responsibilities with the understanding that this is a temporary windfall until my independent assignment ends (likely at the end of the year) and the companies that own the interface find other companies with more resources to maintain and upgrade the system.

  Having said all that, at the moment my time is at a premium but to me a commitment made is a commitment to be honored and so on Friday I was headed to the Twin Ports Open. Like last year planned to travel with four time state champ Tim Mc Entee who is one of my best friends in the chess world. Tim doesn’t drive a stick shift so sharing the driving with my car was out last year and we rented a car with an automatic transmission. I had recently purchased a 2017 Chevy Spark complete with an auto transmission and intended to take the new car to Superior, Wisconsin (the twin port to Duluth and site of the 2017 tournament) but we were going to travel with two of Tim’s friends and students from Drake University (Troy and Ty). My 2017 Chevy Spark has four doors but not nearly enough room for 4 people and four bags so I rented a Chevy Impala from Enterprise rent a car. I performed my normal contracting chores on Friday and when Tim and Troy arrived around 8 (we were picking up Ty on the way) we headed to Enterprise.

  It took about a half hour to get the car from Luke the Enterprise rental agent. Luke was the only agent on duty and was busy dealing with another renter whose car wasn’t ready. Eventually we got to the Impala which could best be described as a couch on wheels with plenty of room, an engine that started at the push of a button, and a wireless hot spot. I took the first two hours driving until we got to Mason City where we stopped for lunch (I had an awesome Egg McMuffin, of course) and then Tim took over the driving until we got past Minneapolis/St. Paul.

Here is the very impressive Chevrolet Impala I rented from Enterprise in Marshalltown, Iowa. Among it's many features are a pristine glove box unsullied by car registrations or rental agreements...

  Since I wasn’t driving I had time to try to figure out how to use the car’s wireless hot spot. I didn’t have the password so I decided to look in the glove box to see if the information was written on the rental agreement or registration packet. The glove box was completely empty with not even a registration. I called the local Enterprise office and was on hold for 15 minutes while being told all agents were busy and my call was very important. I hung up and called the 800 number for roadside assistance. We were still driving but if we got pulled over without a registration I would certainly need some roadside assistance or at least a bail bondsman. After two minutes I was talking to Brenda the Enterprise representative. I told Brenda that I had no car registration and she told me it was in the glove box. I said the glove box was empty and she said "Really?" I thought maybe there was a secret compartment in the Impala so I checked again and informed Brenda that the glove box was really, really, REALLY empty. Brenda then said she would email me a copy of the registration. This was fine by me except I had an iPod and a computer and neither had the internet while traveling so I asked Brenda for the wireless hot spot password. Brenda told me that the wireless hotspot was only for use with the ‘travel tablet’ and since I didn’t order one there was no internet for me from my rental car. I thanked Brenda and told her if I got pulled over I’d ask the state trooper if I could use his internet to show him my registration. I then called the Enterprise office in Marshalltown and this time got Luke the agent right away. Luke told me all I needed was the rental agreement which was emailed to me and that any law enforcement agency I showed it to would then call Enterprise to verify. I don’t know if I believed Luke but it’s not like I had a choice.

Welcome to Wyoming...Minnesota, home to a quadrupling hot dog supply and perpetual lottery winner Matthew L.

  After a little more driving we took a break in Wyoming. Wyoming, Minnesota that is (population 7,751) and stopped at the same Shell station as last year. As you may recall last year the Shell station proclaimed a Matthew L. as a winner of a $1,000 lottery prize and there was one hot dog available at the hot dog station. I am pleased to report that either Matthew L. has not lost his magic touch and is still winning $1,000 lottery prizes or no one in Wyoming has won a lottery prize of note in 12 months or the 7,750 people in Wyoming that are not Matthew L. are extremely camera shy or there really aren’t any people in Wyoming, Minnesota and it is part of the Russian plan to hack our election (which would also explain naming a city after a state – silly Russians…). Thanks to the booming economy there were four times as many hot dogs in the grilling station as last year which came to a grand total of four hot dogs for me to choose from. I selected the pepperjack cheese smoked sausage to go along with a Green Machine Naked Juice drink and we were back on the road to the Twin Ports.

While I was waiting on a stretch of one lane US INTERSTATE HIGHWAY 35 for the second year in a row, I had time to compare the two pictures on the right from last years blog post and ponder whether Matthew L. was pictured in the Wyoming, Minnesota Shell station at least twice in a year or his likeness is so legendary it is never taken down....

  Except for a small traffic delay on the same UNITED STATES INTERSTATE HIGHWAY that was reduced to one lane in each direction for ten miles JUST LIKE LAST YEAR we arrived in Duluth around 4 and kept right on going. We kept going because this years’ tournament was across the bridge in Superior, Wisconsin. The epic site of last years tournament (the Duluth Suites Inn) had replaced the tournament rooms with office space and was no longer available so tournament organizers Dane Zagar and Dane Mattson moved the tournament across the inlet to the Barkers Island Inn. The Barkers Island Inn is part of a resort that has a marina, tennis courts, and boatyard. It is considerably more upscale than the touristy Suites Inn and charges considerably more yet the rooms weren’t nearly as spectacular with a micro fridge and micro wave replacing the Suites Inn’s full kitchen. Because the Inn was a resort and not part of a tourist stop there was nothing within walking distance except boats, water fowl, water, and signs telling people not to swim because Barkers Island has frequent drownings.

Welcome to the Barkers Island Inn. The view of the lake is spectacular and probably even better while sailing in your giant boat!

  Having said that, the Barkers Island Inn was just fine and I can’t hold it against them that the Suites Inn in Duluth was so spectacular. There was an affordable restaurant in the Inn and vending machines that could dispense anything from soda to candy to frozen burgers to yo-yos and playing cards. And anyway while having a hotel room with a full kitchen and plenty of places to walk to I was going to spend most of the next 48 hours sleeping, working, or or hunched over a chess board. I checked in, said hi to Dane and Dane, greeted some of the other players I recognized, avoided some of the other players I recognized, and then we all drove a couple of miles to a Perkins restaurant for dinner. At that point it was time to get some sleep for a long weekend of chess.

I was spoiled by my awesome room at the Suites Inn in Duluth last year but my room at the Barkers Island Inn was roomy enough and came with a charging station, free pen, and an antique phone!

Friday, August 11, 2017

Buy High, Sell Low

  When I last wrote about my adventures in the stock market using my self-directed 401K and cash I get from side jobs (the Found Money Fund or FMF) I focused on buying stocks and collecting an immediate return by selling the option to sell the stock at a lower price than I paid for it. This strategy is called an ‘In-The-Money Covered Call’. My last post mentioned that in the case of Emerson (EMR) the stock price rose just before the date stockholders would receive a dividend which caused the option I sold to be exercised the day before I was due to receive the dividend.

  Companies that declare dividends usually issue them like clockwork each quarter. Emerson and Exxon issue the dividend to stockholders on the second week of February, May, August, and November with the dividends paid the second week of the next month. Intel uses the same months and issues the dividends on the first week of the month payable on the first day of the next month. The day the dividend is issued the stock goes down by the same amount as the dividend. Meanwhile options are sold that expire each week but the bulk of options expire on the third Friday of every month.

  The timing of the dividend date and the monthly options date got me thinking that if I timed my options sells to expire just after the dividend issue date I would either get my option covered early and received an increased yield because I wasn’t holding the ‘in the money stock’ as long or I would pick up the dividend and still have a couple of weeks for the stock price to rebound so the option would be picked up and I would get my agreed-on profit with the bonus of a dividend.

  My first attempt came in early May. A week before Emerson was going to issue their 48 cent per share dividend I scooped up 200 shares at $58.14 a share including commission and took $303 by selling the option to purchase these shares at $57.50 on June 16th. The stock climbed over $59 a share over the next week and closed at $58.85 on May 9th. I fully expected my option to be called in the next day before the dividend was issued and leave me a $170 profit for a six-day investment (1.45% or 88.1% annual). To my dismay the option wasn’t called and I picked up the $96 dividend. Over the next five weeks Emerson bounced between $57.25 and $61.30 and was at $60.68 on June 16th when my option was called and I sold my 200 shares as agreed upon for $57.50. So, I bought a stock on May 4th at $58.14 and sold it for $57.50 when its market price was $60.68. This sounds like idiocy but when the option price and dividend are factored in I made $264 for a 43-day investment which comes to 2.27% or 19.3% annually.
5/4/2017Buy 200 EMR @58.1251-11629.97
5/4/2017Sell 2 EMR Option @57.5 (1.55)
Expiring 6/16/2017
5/10/2017.48 dividend payable 6/10/2017+96.00
6/16/2017Sell 200 EMR @57.50
(option was exercised)

  A wise guy friend of mine pointed out that if I had just bought the EMR stock at $58.14 on May 4th and sold it on June 16th for $60.68 I would have still collected the dividend and made $606 or more than double what I made. This is true but I am not trying to buy low and sell high – I am buying high and selling low in order to maximize my chances of grabbing a percent or two in return. In baseball terms I’m choking up on the bat to hit singles and keep the ball in play instead of taking big swings which can either be home runs or strikeouts.

  In my April post I wrote how I had bought 100 shares of Exxon (XOM) stock for $83 a share on February 15th and sold and bought back and re-sold options to sell the stock at $82.5, always taking a small profit on the buyback of the option and then reselling the option with a later expiration date. On May 3rd, I was showing a profit of $282, the stock was safely below the $82.50 option price, and the Exxon dividend was going to be issued on May 10th. I bought the May option I had sold for $95 less than I sold it for at the end of March and sold a new option expiring on June 16th for $135. My idea was that if the Exxon price skyrocketed in the next week I would have my option called before the dividend was issued but the stock price stayed stubbornly below $82.50 and I collected the dividend on May 10th (payable June 9th). On the option expiration date of June 16th, XOM jumped from $82.26 to $83.49 and again my option was called. To recap I bought 100 shares of XOM for $83 on Feb 15th and sold it for $82.50 on June 16th even though the market price was $83.49. Just like my EMR adventure it looks like lunacy in action until we factor in the $77 dividend and the profit I made from selling and reselling the options which shows a profit for my 4-month investment of $360 which is 4.3% and 13% annually! And to my wise guy friend who pointed out I could have doubled my profit on EMR by buying and holding I would point out that the same strategy with XOM would have left me with a profit of $127 or almost two thirds less than I managed with a little care and effort.
2/15/2017Buy 100 XOM @82.925-8300.45
2/15/2017Sell 1 XOM Option @82.5 (2.32)
Expiring 4/21/2017
3/30/2017Buy 1 XOM Option @82.5 (1.10)
Expiring 4/21/2017
3/30/2017Sell 1 XOM Option @82.5 (1.80)
Expiring 5/19/2017
5/3/2017Buy 1 XOM Option @82.5 (.75)
Expiring 5/19/2017
5/3/2017Sell 1 XOM Option @82.5 (1.41)
Expiring 6/16/2017
5/10/2017.77 dividend payable 6/9/2017+77.00
6/16/2017Sell 100 XOM @82.50
(option was exercised)

  I played this game with XOM with a different price point in May. On May 5th (5 days before the dividend issue date) I bought 200 shares of XOM for $81.81 and collected $1.81 a share for the option to sell the stock at $81 on June 23rd. I expected the option to be called the next week and leave me with a $200 profit for a 5 day investment but the option wasn’t called on May 10th even though the stock was above the $81 strike price at $81.54 so I was issued the dividend. As I mentioned above XOM skyrocketed to $83.49 on June 16th but the option on the $81 sell still wasn’t called. Exxon plummeted the next week and on June 23rd closed at $81.61 when the option was exercised. This was the happiest ending yet – I bought 200 shares on May 5th at $81.81, sold it 49 days later for $81 and pocketed a $341 profit which is 2.1% and 15.5% annually. If I had done a buy and hold like my wise guy friend has suggested I would have shown a profit of $99 which was again two thirds less than I received with some active management.

5/5/2017Buy 200 XOM @81.79-16362.95
5/5/2017Sell 2 XOM Option @81.00 (1.81)
Expiring 6/23/2017
5/10/2017.77 dividend payable 6/9/2017+154.00
6/23/2017Sell 200 XOM @81.00
(option was exercised)

  When my options were called the stocks were sold and I had all my cash back plus my profit. So what did I do with my money now that it was back in the form of cash? I turned around and did the same thing all over again but this time using the expiration date of August 18th which is a week after XOM and EMR again issue dividends. I’ll report on the outcome in a few weeks. I think my buy high and sell low strategy is a low risk way to get sizable returns. I believe my strategy is better in a down or sideways market than the current bull run since I am limiting my upside in the case of a stock skyrocketing. I am also limiting my down side in case of a crash since even if my chosen stocks go down a percent or more I have a good chance of getting the option called and my cash back along with my profit and even if I get caught having to hold a stock that is in a downtrend I only do this with top shelf stocks that pay a solid dividend so I am paid for my ‘patience’ while I wait for the stock to go back up again. Buying and holding seems like more of a gamble to me since I simply do not know enough about the stock market, the effects various world events will have on stock prices, the impact of electric cars and sugar taxes on stock prices, etc...., etc.… Playing my option games and locking in my profit seems like more of a sure thing to me.

Friday, August 4, 2017

Modern Conveniences

  Four years ago I wrote about getting a new Chevrolet Spark from Bob Brown Chevrolet in Urbandale, Iowa. At the time I said the Spark had a tough act to follow in the form of my 2009 Kia Rio. In the intervening four years my Kia has proven to be a dependable emergency vehicle that I take to the occasional chess club meeting with the only major repair being a new clutch at 95,000 miles. When the Spark was new people would ask me how I liked it and I gave my stock answer which is ‘Ask me in a couple of years’ and after more than a couple of years I can say that the Chevy Spark is an OUTSTANDING car that has never left me stranded. The only problem I have had to date was a cracked radiator fluid reservoir and a malfunctioning air conditioner compressor which were both replaced under the extended warranty. The only problem the Chevy Spark had was the passage of time. This month it rolled past 98,000 miles and was two months past the end of the extended warranty. Since I have been working in Ames (75 mile round trip) instead of Des Moines (105 mile round trip) for the last year and a half and was able to work from home three days a week for the six months before that I was able to stretch the Spark’s usage an extra year from my normal car turnover but it was finally time to get a new car. As I said, the 2013 Chevy Spark was an OUTSTANDING car so two weeks ago I sent Bob Brown Chevrolet an email saying I was in the market for a new Spark if they had one at a low price. I got an email back within the hour from Dan the car salesman at Bob Brown. Even though I had bought 7 cars from Bob Brown in the previous 22 years I had never met Dan before and he immediately tried to find out what features I wanted in my new Spark and what colors I wanted and a lot of other stuff I wasn’t interested in. I quickly made it known that I wanted as little as possible in the new Spark and the only color I was interested was some green in my pocket. The 2013 Spark had a stick shift, air conditioning, power windows and a radio. Dan got back to me and said the most stripped down Spark available had air conditioning, power locks and windows, and an automatic transmission. I suppose I could have waited for a more stripped down version to become available but I decided that I would just get the car since maybe at the fast approaching age of 57 having an automatic transmission would be a nice change after 25 years of driving a stick shift and I have to admit having an air-conditioned car is OK too.

  The new car was going to be black and we agreed on the price and made arrangements for me to get the car two Saturdays ago. Kathy was going to drive me down to do the paperwork and I was going to drive back. Everything was according to plan until that morning when the dealer called me to tell me just as were getting ready to take Daisy and Baxter on a long walk before leaving them along for the day. It seems that every Spark was under recall for an air bag issue and I couldn’t get the car that day so I made arrangements to get the car the next weekend ad was very glad that I didn’t go 60 miles to Urbandale for nothing since there is no way I would have gotten a car from Bob Brown ever again.

Neither of these $80,000 Corvettes were in my price range seeing as either one cost more than my house!

  On Saturday, Kathy drove me to Urbandale and dropped me off at Bob Browns at 10:45 for my 11am appointment to get my car. I had some time so I walked around the showroom looking at the cars. There were $80,000 Corvettes, pickup trucks ranging from $35,000 to $70.000, $40,000 sports utility vehicles, with the low price of $25,000 for a Cruze passenger car. Some of these cars had tacky handmade signs pasted on them offering things like cargo mats for an extra $1.16 a month! I would like to think that a $40,000 vehicle would have the cargo mat included. There were no Sparks on the showroom floor. It is the cheapest car offered by Chevrolet and the profit margin isn’t close to what the dealer could get for selling any of the other cars. I’m sure the marketing mavens that advise such things didn’t see the point in wasting floor space on the least expensive car.

A $40,000 car with a cargo mat included...for an extra $1.16 a month!

   Dan the salesmen met me and gave me some paperwork to fill out. When that was finished, I had to wait for the credit approval process. I could have paid for the car or even put it on my credit cards but having the occasional car loan keeps my credit rating up and I’m going to pay it off pretty early anyway. I noodled around on my iPod and put my headphones on so I could avoid the ever present televisions playing Chevrolet ads showing beautiful people getting into brand new beautiful cars and taking drives along some beautiful scenery.

The 90 cent bag of chips was more in my price range although I passed on the $2.50 ounce of beef jerky...

  After a bit I got hungry. Bob Brown had free coffee but no donuts. Luckily there was a series of Chevrolet vending machines so I got a 90 cent bag of potato chips. The vending machine wouldn’t take my dollar bill and I didn’t want to pay for the 90 cent bag of chips with a credit card but I had enough change to cover the purchase and the machine accepted the metal coins, no doubt preparing for the day when it will be configured to accept bitcoin.

  Finally my credit was approved and I met Billie the financing lady who went over all the details. I got the 5 year 100,000 mile warranty instead of the 4 year 100,000 mile warranty I bought last time because this new Spark had an automatic transmission and many more electrical parts and sensors to go bad. The 2017 Spark cost me $3,000 more than the 2013 version because I had $1,000 less from my GM Card to use as a down payment, the extra year warranty cost more, and the 2017 Spark had some extra conveniences like the automatic transmission and cruise control and power locks and 5 years free use of an app that allows me to turn on the headlights and unlock the doors from anywhere in the world as if I was Batman and my Chevy Spark was the Batmobile.

  Less than two hours after I arrived at Bob Brown I was driving out with my new car. I used the cruise control to drive home and in the week I’ve owned the car I’ve only come to a screeching halt in the middle of the highway three times when I forgot I had an automatic transmission and hit the brake thinking it was the clutch. I hope the new Spark wears as well as the old Spark which will now begin a new life as Ben’s car when he goes to school in Long Island this fall.

  I’ve learned a few lessons from my new Spark. The first lesson is that compared to a stick shift, the automatic transmission seems unresponsive. I hit the gas and the car shifts into gear to get into top speed much slower than when I could manipulate the gears with the stick. This is only an issue on the tricky left turn to Highway 30 on my way home where I find I have to leave myself a lot more room. Another lesson is that I don’t care much for the power locks and the little button on the key to lock and unlock the car. I’ve pushed the lock button down and left the rest of the doors unlocked by forgetting to press the button four times already. If I still lived in New Jersey this car would have been stolen (it may have been stolen even if I had locked it). I’ve also learned that I really like the cruise control which will save me money on my annual speeding ticket even though I don’t get where I’m going as fast as I used to. My fourth lesson was a surprise to me in that I found I kind of like the rear view camera. I’ve hardy ever backed into anything but having the close up view is kind of cool when getting into a tight spot. The last thing I learned is how much electric stuff even the cheapest car is full of. Not only can I open the windows and unlock the doors at a push of a button from an app on a smartphone half a world away. I can plug in my iPod into the supplied USB port and play music or podcasts over the cars stereo and even set up a wireless internet hot spot using the car's OnStar system (charges apply). I thougth self-driving vehicles were still decades away but now I am thinking by the time I’m ready for my next car it may be a self-driving vehicle. I don’t know how I’ll like being a full time passenger but I suspect I’ll really like it.

The black and white of my Chevy Spark collection. Live long and prosper in New York, 2013 Chevy Spark! Thanks for your superb service!
Welcome to Marshalltown, 2017 Chevy Spark!

Friday, July 28, 2017

Movie Review - Spiderman: Homecoming

Spiderman: Homecoming is a largely successful attempt to return to the fun-loving roots of the character.

  I went to see Spiderman: Homecoming last week at the local movie theatre on Saturday night along with Kathy, Ben, and 9 other movie goers. This is the second reboot of the character following the acclaimed 2002-2007 trilogy starring Tobey Maguire and the less than successful 2012-2014 reboot starring Andrew Garfield. The Maguire films were revolutionary for the time with iconic characters like The Green Goblin, Sandman, Venom, and Doctor Octopus brought to life battling with Spiderman across Manhattan and to my recollection was the first movies to make super hero battles look like they were really taking place in New York city with our heroes (and the bewildered onlookers) having to dodge bricks and edifices falling from the tall buildings surrounding them. This decade’s reboot was still financially successful but seemed too dark and out of tune with the generally light-hearted tone of the comic Spiderman I remember. In the comics it took years to lead to the death of Captain Stacy and then another couple of years for the demise of his daughter Gwen Stacy but the reboot led off with these two darkest moments of the comic series. The lack of overwhelming success led Sony (who own the license for Spiderman and related characters from Marvel) to delay their plans to create a ‘Spiderman Cinematic Universe’ and re-license the Spiderman character back to Marvel. Spiderman made his Marvel Studios debut in last years ‘Captain America: Civil War’ and was well received with teenage Peter Parker (aka Spiderman) mentored and given a spider suit by none other than Tony Stark (aka Iron Man) who proceeds to put the moves on the rebooted franchise’s younger attractive Aunt May. The Spiderman character looked great in Civil War and whetted my appetite for his return to the screen this year.

  I was pleased to see this reboot skip right past the origin and Uncle Ben getting killed. Instead we get to see the origins of the villain of the piece, Adrian Toomes (aka The Vulture), who is a general contractor that made a winning bid on cleaning up the wreckage of the Avengers HQ from the first Avengers movie when he is put out of business by the government and Tony Stark’s decision to clean up the wreckage using their own personnel for security reasons. These reasons prove to be well founded when Toomes and his exceptionally technologically proficient cleanup crew fashion devastating weaponry out of the alien technology they found on the job site. The weaponry includes Toomes’ Vulture suit, the Shocker’s powerful glove, and enough tools to allow the crew to steal more alien technology from the official cleanup crew.

  The movie centers itself around Peter Parker as a high school sophomore and his balancing act between his school life at the talented and gifted school he attends and his secret identity of Spiderman. Parker’s internship with Tony Stark allows him the freedom to stay out late fighting crime without undue scrutiny from his aunt or classmates. And it’s a good thing too because the movie spends a large amount of time in Peter Parker’s high school training for the academic decathlon challenge, or in detention, or preparing for the Homecoming dance. One good thing about the emphasis on the school is that Parker has a buddy (Ned) who learns his identity and even hacks into his Tony Stark designed spider suit to allow access to the suits advanced features which include a personal assistant named Karen. Tom Holland as Peter Parker/Spiderman seems more suited to playing a light-hearted character and needed a foil to bounce lines off. It was a welcome change from the brooding Spiderman with the weight of the world perpetually on his shoulders although those aspects of the character do make their way into the movie occasionally.

  The school stuff is pretty boring but the action more than makes up for it. Michael Keaton is a great Vulture, menacing and brilliant and tough while being a devoted family man and a perfect Spiderman anti-villain and there is a great plot twist written for him. His crew is mostly a bunch of dimwitted goons but their enhanced weaponry make them at least able to compete with Spiderman. The Vulture’s crew seem best at making high powered laser beams so there are plenty of buildings, cars, planes, and boats being sliced and diced for Spiderman to contend with. My favorite action sequence was Spidey being scared of heights while climbing the Washington Monument and his inability to break the thick window to get inside. The task is eventually accomplished but the limits of Spiderman’s powers make him more of a likable superhero that has to use his wits to get by.

  There are a few plot holes like the absence of any media speculation as to why Spiderman was in Washington in the first place without anyone trying to figure out his secret identity. Too much of the action was set at night where the action was hard to follow. I think Spiderman is better off in the daylight looking like an insect set against the skyscrapers of New York. There were guest appearances by Captain America in high school motivational videos that served as welcome comic relief with the Tony Stark/Happy Hogan/Iron Man interactions serving more as plot devices to keep the story moving along. The high school dramatics were a little much for someone like me that is almost 40 years out of high school but maybe younger people have a more favorable view. I liked the new take on Parker’s high school friends with the exception of Flash Thompson changing from a jock/bully into a spoiled rich kid with a fancy car who teases Parker instead of physically threatening him.

  I think Spiderman: Homecoming was a small cut below the Maguire series in terms of quality and storytelling but it would fit in and if this was the first ever Spiderman movie I think it would have been a huge hit. I found it superior to the Garfield pair of movies. It was light hearted, well-made, showed Spiderman/Peter Parker in an understandable light without going overboard on the teen angst, and the Vulture was an awesome villain that I hope will return someday. I don’t think it is a must see theatre movie for non-comicphiles but I think this movie was looking at a larger audience.

  Despite starring what is THE iconic character of the Marvel Comics universe, this film has grossed a fairly disappointing $250 million in its first three weeks which is in line with the last reboot despite having the guest appearance in ‘Captain America : Civil War’ as a lead in. I see a number of factors for the less than overwhelming box office numbers. This is the first Marvel character to have its THIRD reboot. Batman can be successfully rebooted since he (and the Joker) can be played by a-list actors that will attract moviegoers who want to see their favorite actor’s interpretation of the iconic characters to offset the lack of excitement at yet another retelling of the Batman origin, etc… As a teenager, Spiderman will almost always be played by an actor without that kind of following which leaves nothing to offset the inevitable character fatigue. The X-Men franchise suffered slippage at the box office with its reboot and we have yet to see Marvel Studios replace Iron Man, Captain America, Thor, etc… which they will surely have to do over the next half dozen years as the actors age beyond the point of believably.

  This reboot places Spiderman at a much younger age with the Daily Bugle, Harry Osborn, Gwen Stacy, Curt Connors, etc... still to come. I think this movie was more of an investment in the future than a cashing in of the present value of the character. By going so young I think Marvel is hoping to attract a younger audience that can grow along with the character as apposed to yet another Marvel superhero movie. This was a large part of the initial attraction of Spiderman in his debut over 50 years ago. Peter Parker was the same age as the DC sidekick heroes like Robin, Kid Flash, Speedy, and Wonder Girl but was a full-fledged hero with real world problems instead of a second banana to the real hero with a secret identity of a well-heeled ward to a rich superhero. In this sense Spiderman has truly had a homecoming and perhaps a realistic chance at reclaiming his place at the head of the Marvel Universe.

Friday, July 21, 2017

The Five People I Don't Want to Meet in Heaven - Part 2

  In continuing my series on the five people I don’t want to meet in heaven I want to stress that I don’t think any of the people I’m going to profile don’t deserve to be in heaven or won’t be in heaven – I just don’t want to meet them if we both happen to end up in heaven. My last profile was about the dumpster diver that called me heartless when I didn’t even let him ask me for a handout. Here is a sample of another group of people I meet enough to know I don’t want them to meet them in heaven either.

  I’m five months into my new occupation as a self-employed contractor hiring myself out as a programmer. At present I’m working at a company in Ames and am supposed to be there to the end of the year. I say ‘supposed to’ because all it takes for any job to disappear is one person with the authority to draw a line through your name. Then you aren’t there anymore. In the last ten years I’ve had the company I worked for sold and my job change from writing software to documenting the software I wrote so the new programmers in Indianapolis could rewrite it, played Survivor with the company I was working for laying people off and cutting the pay of those not being laid off, and had my company eliminate my entire department this year. I’ve come to realize that there is no such thing as job security – only the illusion of job security. I wish I could tell my younger self to never take less money for job security because you are only paying for the illusion of job security. The idea of job security is something I believed that isn’t true and like most things you believe that aren’t true this disbelief comes with a heavy price tag.

To Tell The Truth (NOT)

  I am enjoying my time at the company in Ames. I am treated like a valued member of the team, I get along with everyone, and most importantly my invoices get processed right away which to me is a sign of competence and respect which I value very highly. Since I was working at this same company through my old job the only thing that changed in my work situation was that I didn’t have to be the backup for the program I had worked on from 2010 to 2015 that interfaces with a government entity. That lasted until April when the government entity’s program had a series of major malfunctions which brought the interface program to a halt. The person in charge of the program couldn’t get it working and I was offered a part-time contracting assignment to get it running again.

  I got the program running and within a few days the government entity had solved their meltdown. The person in charge of the program was still having problems getting it to run smoothly. Two weeks later I was asked if I would be available in the early mornings to monitoring the program in order to head off any small problems before they became big problems. At the ripe old age of 56 I’m a little old for having two jobs but I agreed because my current assignment is only ‘guaranteed’ (don’t forget what I said about the illusion of security) until the end of the year and the extra money would come in handy when my current assignment ends. Also this particular piece of software is something I put a lot of time and effort into and it won a prestigious software award a few years back. Not only do have a sentimental attachment it makes me feel good to know a program I spent so much time on is still running like a top which it does until the government agency it interfaces to has one of its all too frequent problems. When a problem arises I adjust what I can on my end and let the agency and my clients know what went wrong and what needs to be done on the government side.

  Monitoring the software was easy enough until the beginning of June when the government agency started having problems with their nightly data refresh that makes the available information that is needed to balance accounts and make data available for the program's end users. The refresh finished by 4:30 am for years most of the time but now was finig=hing between 5:30 am and 7:00 am every morning. This was causing delays in my program getting the government data to the end users. I wrote to the government’s support email every day the data was late but got no results except to thank me for my patience until June 28th when I received an email saying that “We have escalated the issue and it has become our lead developer's highest priority.”

  That sounded good to me but after two more weeks of no results and late data I wrote to the government support email and mentioned that this situation had now been going on for 41 days. I received an email from the author of the June 28th email which said “Because of limited resources, it is unlikely that this issue will be addressed prior to a potential fall release.”

  So much for having the issue escalated and becoming the lead developer’s highest priority! I wrote back asking what had happened in the intervening two weeks and was given this reply “Unfortunately, the development team is now down to 1/4 its size from last year. I apologize for overcommitting in my June 28th message.”

  Now at this point I didn’t see any reason in having a correspondence with this government entity. I don’t know what overcommitting means since either it was or was not the lead developer’s highest priority. If it wasn’t then I wasn’t being overcommitted to – I was being lied to. It is clear that this was just something said to me in the hopes that I would stop asking about the issue which I did for two weeks. If the development team had been cut to a quarter of its size in the past two weeks I could understand the shift in priorities but a development team having been cut over a year shouldn’t be a reason to tell me the delays had become the highest priority of the lead developer.

  I understand why people don’t tell the truth sometimes. I was working on a program change for a company and when it was done I sent an email out to all the interested parties detailing what the changes were. Ten days later (the day before the changes were to go live) I got an email from the president of the company saying my changes weren’t what they wanted. I sent an email back referring to my prior email mentioning there was ample time to let me know that my changes weren’t what they wanted. Then I got an email from the project manager saying they didn’t get my earlier email BUT I had an email from this same project manager thanking me for the update so I know they got the original email. This was a lie but I can understand someone dropping the ball and not wanting to admit it. I don’t agree with it but I understand it. A few years ago I wrote about this person from the chess world whose advice was to "never tell anyone the truth" and showed an example of how he lied to me in an email the very next week. I didn't agree with this liar either but I understand why someone whose stated philosophy is to never tell the truth would lie all the time. One thing I don't understand is why telling the truth is so often the last resort instead of the first option.

  I don’t understand why I wasn’t just told that there was no hope of having this issue resolved weeks ago. I could have changed my interface to run later or let the end users know the delays are now a part of their daily process or adopted any other number of strategies or just done nothing. Maybe the government support person I talked to was instructed to tell me something that wasn’t true or maybe they thought it up on their own. In either case I don’t see how I can believe anything that comes from this particular support group. I could look on the bright side and be glad this group isn’t in charge of kidney transplants (“Your kidney is on its way! It’s our driver’s highest priority!”) but I’ll settle for hoping I don’t meet any of these lying types if we both make it to heaven.

If Benny from the 1990 film classic 'Total Recall' ever needs to find a job to feed his '5 kids' I know a certain goverment agency where he would fit right in although he might need to clean up the language a bit...