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
+303.65
5/10/2017.48 dividend payable 6/10/2017+96.00
6/16/2017Sell 200 EMR @57.50
(option was exercised)
11494.79
Total+264.472.27%

  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
223.25
3/30/2017Buy 1 XOM Option @82.5 (1.10)
Expiring 4/21/2017
-115.54
3/30/2017Sell 1 XOM Option @82.5 (1.80)
Expiring 5/19/2017
174.35
5/3/2017Buy 1 XOM Option @82.5 (.75)
Expiring 5/19/2017
-79.99
5/3/2017Sell 1 XOM Option @82.5 (1.41)
Expiring 6/16/2017
135.35
5/10/2017.77 dividend payable 6/9/2017+77.00
6/16/2017Sell 100 XOM @82.50
(option was exercised)
8244.87
Total+358.844.32%

  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
+355.65
5/10/2017.77 dividend payable 6/9/2017+154.00
6/23/2017Sell 200 XOM @81.00
(option was exercised)
16194.90
Total+341.602.09%

  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...

Friday, July 14, 2017

Congratulations Are In Order, I Suppose

  I have no doubt that NBA basketball is taking over as America’s number one sport. The 2016-2017 season ended over a month ago yet the NBA has been front and center of the sports pages ever since with pre-draft trades, the actual draft, and the free agency period. Twenty years ago baseball and the upcoming football season would have been at the front of the sports sections and talk radio – now it is the NBA off season. Most of the experts I listen to and read expected very few teams to pick up high salaried players because there is seemingly no possibility of competing with the Golden State Warriors and Cleveland Cavaliers teams that have won their conferences the past three years.

  It didn’t quite work out that way since good teams are not easily dissuaded from trying to take the step to greatness and as good as the Warriors and Cavaliers have been they are always just one major injury from falling back to the pack. The Houston Rockets have not had a losing season since 2006 and have won 50 games in three of the past five years since acquiring all-star James Harden from the Oklahoma City Thunder, making it to the conference finals in 2015. After a promising regular season ended in a disappointing second round playoff loss to the Spurs, Rocket General Manager Daryl Morey managed to get Los Angeles Clipper All-Star Chris Paul to come to Houston as a free agent. Normally the team that currently employs a player can offer them the most money in free agency but Paul won’t have to sacrifice any money because the Clippers arranged a sign-and–trade deal with the Rockets in which the Clippers signed Paul to the contract he had agreed to with Houston and then traded him to the Rockets for starting guard Patrick Beverly, former sixth man of the year Lou Williams, and a pair of rotation players (Sam Dekker and Montrezl Harrell).

  This looks like a great fit. Morey is known for his pioneering use of basketball analytics and the Rockets were one of the first teams embrace the philosophy of taking either three points shots or close range shots like lobs and layups that would either lead to a high percentage of baskets or foul shots. Paul just had his career high in three point attempts and percentage. He also gives the Rockets a second all-star which will allow Morey to try to convince another top 20 player to head to Houston for a realistic chance to compete for a title.

  I don’t like this deal for Houston. In getting Paul, they sacrificed a lot of depth (even if the trade to Clippers wasn’t made, signing Paul would have led to the release of most of the same players to create salary cap space). Paul is 32 years old which seems pretty old to me (Harden is 27) and his performance and durability could tail off drastically at any time. And if Paul’s effectiveness doesn’t drop off he will be eligible for a max extension at the end of next season. The Rockets just gave Harden a $228 million dollar extension and if Paul gets something even close that will be their team for the foreseeable future. Another thing I don’t like about this deal is that both Paul and Harden seem to have the ball in their hands a lot on offense so either or both players will have to change their game to accommodate the other superstar which could make either or both players far less effective.

  I can’t see the Rockets being able to beat the Spurs or Warriors even with Paul. The only way I see this deal working for the Rockets is if Morey is able to obtain another superstar and make a title run. I can’t rule it out and it seems LeBron James is looking to leave Cleveland next year. If he does Houston may be a promising destination for him. I look at the Rockets acquiring Chris Paul as a home run swing that has a small chance of paying off.

  The Boston Celtics were another big player in free agency. The Celtics had the best record in the eastern conference this year and made the conference finals but were blown out by the Cavaliers in 5 games, two of which were 30+ point losses. The Celtics had the top pick in the draft by virtue of their trade with the Nets in 2014 which gave them the Nets #1 pick by swap or outright for five years. The Celtics traded the top pick to the 76ers for a future #1 pick and the #3 pick which they used to select small forward Jayson Tatum of Duke. Then the Celtics were able to sign free agent Gordon Hayward of the Utah Jazz to a $128 million dollar 4 year deal. In order to sign Hayward, the Celtics had to renounce the rights to center Kelly Olynk and trade guard Avery Bradley to the Pistons for power forward Marcus Morris for a salary cap savings of three million dollars.

  I like the Celtics getting Hayward more than the Rockets signing of Paul but not much more. Hayward is young at 27 and has been in the league six years. He made his first All-Star team this past season leaving open the question of whether his all-star status is proof of his hitting a new level or a fluke. While Paul’s best years are not ahead of him it is possible that Hayward is ready to ascend to a new level.

  Even if Hayward is an all-star and the Celtics other all-star Isiah Thomas successfully recovers from the hip injury he suffered in the playoffs last year I can’t see this team challenging the Cavaliers for the eastern conference championship. I’m not even sure if Hayward is better than Avery Bradley who was dumped in order free up the salary cap space to pay Hayward.

  Is this move going to lead the Celtics to a championship of a Finals appearance? I don’t think so but James decides to leave the Cavaliers after next season this is probably the best team in the East by a small margin over the Wizards and Raptors. The Warriors are on another level but if they should get upset it is not impossible to see this group of Celtics become champions.

  While no teams vaulted themselves into championship contention in my eyes during free agency the Thunder and Timberwolves have improved themselves the most. The Thunder picked up perennial all-star Paul George from the Indiana Pacers for an overpaid Victor Oladipo and 2016 first round pick Domantas Sabonis. It was a steal except for the small detail of George becoming a free agent next season and already telling the Pacers that he wants to play for the Lakers. Even so, this is a great gamble by the Thunder. George is an immediate upgrade and shows MVP Russell Westbrook a season before he can opt out of his contract that the team is willing to take risks to add talent. The Thunder aren’t championship contenders because of this move but are markedly better and if all the pieces fit just right could beat anyone in the playoffs.

  The other big move I like is the Timberwolves acquisition of Jimmy Butler from the Bulls for 2016 first round pick Kris Dunn, slam dunk champion Zach Lavine (coming off a knee injury), and a swap of the 7th and 16th picks in the NBA draft. Butler is under contract for two more years at $20 million and while not the high flyer that Lavine is has proved to be a durable hard-working player. Butler will either infuse the Wolves young stars Karl Anthony-Towns and Andrew Wiggins with his work ethic and defensive intensity or be ostracized and tuned out by the young talented core. I expect the Wolves to return to the playoffs for the first time since they traded Kevin Garnett.

  It seems like the entire NBA press is congratulating the Rockets, Celtics, Thunder, and Timberwolves for signing or trading for their All-Star player. I'll hold off on my congratulations until I see how these new acquisitions mesh with their teams. For now, all that has been won is the right to pay each of these players 20 million dollars of more. Everything else is the hope that future performance will outweigh the risk of under-performing players with large contracts or fractured team chemistry.

Friday, July 7, 2017

The 2017 Fried Chicken Dinner Winner

It is time once again to turn over the Broken Pawn to America's favorite beagle bloggers – Daisy and Baxter,
who for a change have matters of vital public interest to discuss!

Hi Everybody! Daisy here along with… …Baxter and it’s time for another blog post for our many fans! It’s about time we got to write another post. I mean how often can Hank keep writing about movies and television shows? That’s right, Daisy! Especially when there are so many more important topics in the world to discuss. Like what, Baxter? Like how last week Hank ran out of bologna for his sandwich that he takes to work. It could have been a disaster! Luckily Hank realized he wasn’t going to have enough bologna for the next sandwich and made an emergency meat run! It was so exciting. We were wondering what kind of emergency meat Hank was going to bring home. I was hoping it wasn’t going to be one of those tiny Carl Buddig cold cut packs that hardly have any meat in them to share with us. Luckily there was a happy ending because Hank brought home a whole pound of Oscar Mayer turkey. There was plenty to share and it was very tasty. It was the best emergency ever! YUM!! Turkey is one of my favorite meats! Is there any meat that’s not one of your favorites, Baxter? If think of one I’ll let you know.

We did get some bad news this weekend, Daisy. That’s true Baxter. Hank cancelled our annual beef stick taste test awards. I was so sad. Except for the Jiffy and Casey’s all the other convenience stores don’t sell beef sticks out of a container. They all sell tiny, greasy Slim Jims at 2 or 3 for a dollar. And most of these stores get upset with Hank for taking pictures because of all the drug paraphernalia they sell. I’m sure they sell more than drug parapan…parphanal…drug stuff, Daisy. That’s why they don’t want any pictures.

Luckily Hank decided to put our taste testing skills to another task, Baxter! YES! Hank decided we should judge who has the best fried chicken in town. YUM!! I love fried chicken. I love fried chicken too. The rules were Hank would get a three piece dinner from each fried chicken place in town. And he would give us a drumstick to share! YUM!! I love drumsticks! Then Hank would eat the rest of the chicken meal but he always shares with us. We got to grade the chicken and the winner would be the… ‘Daisy and Baxter 2017 Fried Chicken Dinner Winner’!

Hy-Vee's chicken was so large it needed it's own tray!
Which thankfully kept it far away from the disgusting sides.

We had our taste test last month when Kathy went to Idaho to bring Ben and his stuff back from college. Hank was alone in the house except for us pets and we had the entire weekend to concentrate on our fried chicken taste test. Our first tasting was on Thursday night. Hank went to the Hy-Vee and brought home a three piece chicken dinner! There was a leg, a breast, and a thigh. Hank got cole slaw and potato egg salad for his sides. Hy-Vee has really big chicken pieces, Daisy. They were big, Baxter. Last time we had their chicken it was dry and tasteless but not this year! I found our chicken leg moist and tender! I thought it was delicious. Juicy without being greasy. And the breast and thigh was so big there was plenty for Hank to share. We shared a lot and it was all delicious. There was only one problem. What was that, Daisy? Hank thought the cole slaw and potato salad were disgusting. The cole slaw had more of that runny cole slaw juice than the cole slaw. And the potato salad didn’t have any chunks of potatoes! Hank took a bite that had some egg and said the egg was rotten. He threw out his sides after a few bites. He said it was so bad he wouldn't even feed it to us. Hank never throws away food, Baxter. The sides must have been really gross. Hank paid $10.47 for the dinner and it’s a shame he couldn’t enjoy the sides. I’m giving the Hy-Vee chicken 4 paws, Daisy. They had big, tasty pieces of chicken and we are supposed to judge the chicken not the sides. I think the owner experience is important as well as the chicken, Baxter. I’m only giving Hy-Vee two paws for making sides so disgusting that Hank couldn’t eat it or feed it to a dog! Sigh…What’s next? Grading the ambiance?

Hy-vee – 3 paws 


KFC gave Hank a soda with his $9 Big Box.
I wish the chicken was bigger and the box smaller...

On Friday, Hank went to work but came home early with a $9 Big Box from KFC! The KFC had a leg, breast, and thigh just like Hy-Vee. The chicken leg was the best tasting chicken I ever had. I agree the KFC leg tasted great but it was very tiny and the breast and thigh were very small also. There was hardly any chicken for Hank to share with us. On the bright side Hank did get a soda and a biscuit and he must have liked his sides of cole slaw and mashed potatoes with gravy. What makes you say that, Daisy? Because of how fast he gobbled them down. I think they were gone in 10 seconds! That’s even faster than I could eat my piece of the tiny chicken leg. Even though the KFC chicken was small it did taste great. Hank liked the sides and the meal cost a dollar less than the Hy-Vee. I’m going to give the KFC 3 paws. None of the chicken cost me anything and I didn’t get any of the sides of even a sip of Hank’s soda. I’m giving the KFC 2 paws. If they want more paws they need bigger chicken in the $9 Big Box! If Hank reads this that may be the last chicken either of us gets…

KFC– 2 1/2 paws 

Steven Seagal's 2016 classic "Contract To Kill" has everything I want in a Steven Seagal movie. Namely, Steven Seagal and his steely glare...sigh

We had a great Saturday. Hank was home all day and we took a lot of long walks! Yes we did! When Hank is alone with us walks us through the alleyways instead of the streets. Lots of people put their garbage in the alleys and we get lots of new smells. It’s not all garbage, Baxter. Some people have nice backyards with pretty flowers. I like to smell garbage! When we got back from our noon time walk Hank left us alone but he came back with two special treats. Hank brought home a three piece broasted chicken dinner from Haley’s! YUM! I love broasted chicken. I liked the chicken but had a hard time concentrating on it when I found out Hank brought home a DVD of my favorite movie star, Steven Seagal! Was it the movie where Steven beats a lot of people up? Of course! We watched the 2016 classic "Contract To Kill". Steven plays a former CIA agent who has to assemble a team to take out drug cartels and terrorists. In one scene Steven Seagal beats up three terrorists without even getting up from his chair! And he looks at villains and his girlfriend that's 40 years younger than him with his steely glare…Sigh….It must be wonderful to have Steven look at you with his steely glare… I liked the movie because the good guys won and Steven Seagal barely had to touch anyone. I wish Hank was more like him. I’ll bet Steven Seagal’s KFC Big Box is full of chicken! The Hy-Vee wouldn’t dare give Steven disgusting sides with his chicken dinner… Not unless they wanted Steven Seagal to break their arms and legs without even getting up from his chair!

Haley's had a golden brown chicken leg for each of us! It's a winning combination!

Well, we can talk about Steven later, Baxter. Let’s get to the Haley’s chicken. Hank got the Haley’s 3 piece dark meat box for $10. It had two legs and a thigh. There was no soda but Hank got potato salad and green beans for his sides along with a biscuit. I think Hank was chickened out because he gave us both legs. We each got one! The chicken leg was excellent. Crispy on the outside and moist on the inside. Broasted chicken just tastes better, It’s a combination of fried and roasted chicken. And there was a lot of meat too. The legs were just as big as Hy-Vee’s but the thigh was a little smaller. It may have been a mutant chicken. If being delicious is a mutant power I agree! I’m going to give the Haley’s four paws. Having a whole leg is way better than half a leg and a piece of a chicken breast! I agree, Baxter. And Hank wolfed down the sides so fast they must have been excellent! I’m giving Haley’s four paws, too! I'm sure Steven Seagal will eat Haley's chicken if he ever comes to Marshalltown!

Haley's – 4 paws 

So Haley’s is the runaway 2017 Daisy and Baxter Chicken Dinner Winner, Daisy. Yes indeed Baxter. They provided the perfect combination of taste, portion, and non-disgusting side dishes! Congratulations to Haley’s! I can’t help but be sad, though. Why’s that? Because we won’t have another fried chicken taste test for a whole year. Don’t worry, Baxter. There’s plenty of other things to taste test. And Kathy is going away with Ben next week so we’ll be alone with Hank again. Maybe Hank will rent another Steven Seagal movie and we can taste test hamburgers… …Or ribs!.. …Or pizza… …Or Hamburgers! OH BOY! I can’t wait! YUM!

Friday, June 30, 2017

TV Review - Fear The Walking Dead Season 3 (Episodes 1-5)

   WARNING : FEAR THE WALKING DEAD SEASON 3 EPISODES 1 through 5 SPOILERS BELOW!!!

What has season three of 'Fear The Walking Dead' been like? Let's find out...

  I did not have high hopes for season three of AMC’s 'Fear The Walking Dead' zombie apocalypse summer companion show to the long-running classic ‘The Walking Dead’. Season two ended with our band of survivors split up as the apocalypse power couple Travis and Madison beat a hasty escape from their refuge at a Mexican resort along with daughter Alicia due to Travis going on a murderous rampage after learning of the death of his son Christopher, not only murdering Christopher’s killers but the resort’s lone doctor. The trio left real estate con-man Victor Strand behind as they headed north to find Madison’s son Nick. Meanwhile Nick had led the residents of the Colony he was staying at to the US-Mexican border where they were assaulted by an unknown paramilitary group. The lack of action at the end of season 2 along with the reality-suspending coincidences that made the disparate groups aware of each other made this season more of an afterthought to me instead of a summer event to look forward to.

  I was pleasantly surprised when season three opened with the reunion of Travis & Co. and Nick already having taken place instead of using two or more episodes of the season to build up to it. While the family being reunited was good news, the bad news was that they found themselves as prisoners of the paramilitary group run by Jeremiah Otto Sr., whose son Troy has used a fuel expedition as a chance to take prisoners and then kill them in order to time how long it takes them to reanimate as zombies. While Travis, Nick, and Nick’s girlfriend Luciana await their turn in the timing test, Madison and Alicia have found favor with Troy who attempts to talk the pair into leaving the rest of the family to their fate and accompanying him to the Broke Jaw ranch that serves as the group’s headquarters.

I was willing to suspend my belief that Madison could outfight soldier wannabe Troy for this epic 'spoon' scene!

  Madison declines the offer in grisly fashion by sticking a spoon in Troy’s eye and demanding he take her to the rest of her family. In the meantime Travis and Nick have escaped their imprisonment. Nick and Luciana are trying to navigate their way through the conveniently located underground sewer pipes while Travis is recaptured and forced to battle multiple zombies in a huge pit.

Travis is a seriously BAD ACTOR when so motivated!

  Travis defeats all the zombies with the aid of his berserker rage, some rebar, and a cement block while Troy’s brother Jake arrives to calm Madison enough into taking the spoon out of Troy’s eye. The camp is then overrun by zombies and everyone beats a hasty retreat with Nick and Madison in a truck convoy while Travis, Alicia, and Luciana exit via the group’s helicopter.

RIP Travis. He was one of the main characters on FTWD. Emphasis on WAS...

  It was a great season premiere with everything I want in a zombie apocalypse show: people killing people, people killing zombies, and zombies killing people, and as a special bonus someone getting their eye gouged out with a spoon! Episode two immediately followed the premiere and was a game changer for the series as the militia’s helicopter came under attack and Travis got shot in the neck. In prior two seasons I’m sure this situation would have been milked for weeks but in this season Travis sees how much blood he is losing and jumps to his death rather than become a helicopter zombie. The loss of Travis changes everything. The rest of the episode shows Alicia and the other survivors of the helicopter attack get back to the ranch where Madison becomes acquainted with Jerimiah Otto Sr. himself and decides the family will stay at the ranch for the time being instead of striking out on their own as originally planned.

  Now that our group has a place to stay for the season episode 3 showed us more about the Otto family via pre-apocalypse videotapes that show Otto as a survivalist that predicts the end of the world while selling his survivalist videos (including a survival bucket complete with a shovel and iodine pills). We also learn that Otto’s wife (since deceased) bears a striking resemblance to Madison which likely explains how Madison and family weren't killed after she tried to gouge the younger Otto’s eye out with a spoon. A great moment occurs when Alicia is invited to the youth bible study which turns out to be an excuse for the teens of the ranch to get drunk and high while playing 20 questions with a chomping zombie head.

  There is plenty of drama at the ranch as the survivalist-minded residents (except for the youth who are getting drunk and high) are setting out for expeditions to hunt for wild boars and find out who shot down their helicopter. That situation took a spot on the back burner as we catch up with con-man Strand at the resort hotel. Strand quells a mob outside the resort gates by pretending to be a doctor that will give needed medical attention and even delivers a baby successfully. His heroism backfires as he is kicked out of the resort by the leaders who are fearful of a riot when his lack of medical knowledge is exposed. Strand typically lands on his feet by obtaining the keys to a brand new Ferrari and drives away from the resort in style. Strand heads north until he runs into old friend Dante who has taken over a reservoir with his armed goons and now controls the local populace with his control of the only water supply. The only problem is that Dante knows Strand as the supreme con-man he is. Strand is taken to the top of the reservoir where he witnesses someone who crossed Mr. Dante thrown over 100 feet into a pile of zombies where is eaten alive after surviving the fall. Strand is almost thrown over but is instead led to a jail cell.

Daniel Salazar to the rescue!

  While in his jail cell at the end of episode three, Strand receives a surprise visit from an old friend from season two: Daniel Salazar, the CIA-trained Costa Rican Black Ops torturer turned Los Angeles barber. We last saw Salazar at the season two mid-season finale when he burned the Thomas Abigail farm to the ground and hasn’t been seen from again. His daughter Ofelia has been missing since the end of season two. Daniel asks Strand about his daughter but Stand can’t just say that Ofelia made it to the resort and disappeared and instead spins one lie on top of another until Salazar catches him in one of his many lies and leaves him in the cell to rot. From there we get to catch up with Salazar who was left for dead but rescued by the clownish Efrain and Dante reservoir water expert Lola. Lola has been siphoning water to a group of people Efrain belongs to via a fountain in a shopping mall that activates for a few minutes every Tuesday at 5pm. Aside from being a plumbing expert, Lola is a skilled medical practitioner who cures Daniel of an infected and burnt leg by slicing the infected flesh off with a large knife.

  Daniel leaves Efrain’s group but soon find himself washed through the sewer system into Dante’s reservoir where Lola rescues him yet again by getting him a job on her janitor crew that clears the dead bodies from the water inlets. Shortly Daniel is recognized by Dante as the black ops killer he is and gets promoted to the goon squad where Daniel immediately helps capture Efrain. Daniel is then charged with torturing Efrain into giving up Lola but Lola confesses while Daniel is savagely beating Efrain. Efrain, Lola, and even Strand are then brought to the top of the reservoir to be thrown into the zombie pit below but Daniel saves the day but taking out the goons and killing Mr. Dante for good measure.

The 'quiet' Episode 5 featured this extremely creepy scene...

  ‘Fear The Walking Dead’ has turned from Sunday night post-apocalyptic television filler into appointment television. Even the slow-moving fifth episode with lots of dialogue and the meeting of a group of Native American survivors that claim the Broke Jaw ranch as their territory kept my attention with the opening of an elderly man waking up to discover his wife had died and turned to a zombie overnight. I was expecting the man (who we had seen dancing with his wife in the previous episode) to kill his wife but instead he hugs her and puts a bullet through both their skulls at once. There was also a classical horror scene showing an old man sitting in a chair on a rock continually reciting a poem about a man who wasn’t there as the reveal shows his exposed skull with crows pecking away at his brain. The viewership of the show has been steadily declining although it is still leading cable television for Sunday nights among 18-49 year old viewers. I’m hopeful that as news of the improved quality of the show and the newfound unpredictability of the characters’ fates (as evidenced by Travis’s early demise) spreads this ratings will improve. Since this show isn’t beholden to the story lines of a comic book like the parent ‘The Walking Dead’ show I wouldn’t mind seeing all the main characters get killed off with the show following the zombie apocalypse around the world instead of viewing it through the eyes of a small group of survivors.