Friday, February 24, 2017

TV Review - The Walking Dead Season 7 Part 2 (Episodes 9 & 10)

   WARNING : THE WALKING DEAD SEASON 7 EPISODES 9 & 10 SPOILERS BELOW!!!

The mid season premiere started off with more talking...

  The Walking Dead kicked off the second half of its seventh season last weekend. The first half had a great start with the deaths of TWD original Glenn and fan favorite Abraham at the hands of super bad guy Negan but descended into an abyss of disjointed one-off episodes featuring one or two characters with little to no action. The show’s ratings plummeted from an all-time high of 17 million viewers in the season premiere to 10.5 million viewers for the mid-season finale which was the lowest in four years.

  I was not looking forward to the return of the show nearly as much as in past years and the second half premiere’s start gave me no cause for optimism as Rick Grimes’ intrepid band of zombie apocalypse survivors went to the Hilltop Colony and the kingdom of King Ezekiel to forge alliances to fight Negan, Instead of battles with zombies or between the groups of survivors we were treated to talk, more talk, and as a break from the talk there was some dialog thrown in. No alliances were forged and as the group headed back to their Alexandria base everything changed and the action meter went into overdrive.

But the action soon intensified!

  Our group happened upon an exit ramp blocked with cars and mined with dynamite and other explosives. Rick decided to take the explosives and the group started to disassemble the mines. Then they discovered that the trap was set for a massive herd of zombies headed straight for the group. While part of the group continued to set the explosives free, Rick and Michonne hot-wired a pair of cars that were holding a steel cable meant to herd the zombies towards the explosives and proceeded to drive through the zombie herd, cutting hundreds of zombies in half before heading back to Alexandria. It was a great action piece and something that was missing from the show since the zombies overran Alexandria in the middle of season 6. As if that wasn’t enough, Rick and company set out at the end of the episode to find the missing Father Gabriel only to walk into a trap near a landfill and be surrounded by hundreds black suited strangers for a cliffhanger to the next episode.

  Episode 10 got even better as far as I was concerned. Part of the show concerned itself with the goings on at the Kingdom with a tense standoff between the Kingdom and the Saviors and a vicious fistfight between Daryl and the Kingdom’s Richard in between more boring talk. The rest of the episode dealt with Rick’s group meeting with the new group that ambushed them.

  This part of the episode was my favorite Walking Dead of all time. The script was straight out of Star Trek except that it was set in a zombie apocalypse. The new group was odder than odd with a leader that communicated in vocal shorthand and hand signals to her crew. The group (which has no name) takes Rick to the top of the biggest garbage heap and the leader pushes him into a pit to battle a zombie clad in armor with spikes running through him and a spiked metal helmet to protect his brain.

The critics hated this scene but I think it doesn't get better than this!

  This fight was great and had me glued to the set. It was just like Captain Kirk of the USS Enterprise battling an alien to free his crew or save his ship. And just like the classic Captain from 50 years ago, Rick prevailed using his brains as much as his brawn and even makes a deal with the new group to become allies (provided Rick’s group gets guns for the new group).

  I read some reviews and listened to a couple of podcast reviews and the actions scenes at the landfill and highway were almost universally panned as contrived while the scenes at the Kingdom were lauded for their character development (Here is an example from Forbes'). I agree that the action scenes in the first two episodes of the half season were contrived but I say SO WHAT? We are talking about a zombie apocalypse after all which I think makes almost any scenario contrived. Anything the showrunners do to give a fresh take on the civilizations sprouting up from apocalypse survivors and new ways to fight and kill zombies are more than welcome in my book.

  The Walking Dead television series loosely follows the comics and the current conflict vs. Negan may be the high point of the comics but on television it leads to too much talk about fighting Negan and too little action. The battles with zombies and the special effects they lend themselves to are what makes the television show special. If I wanted to watch shows about rival gangs fighting there are any number of cop, vampire, or super hero shows to give me that. I watch the Walking Dead to see our group of survivors battling to survive and the most visceral threat to their survival comes from the zombies that seemingly appear out of nowhere and must be disposed of. Other survivor groups are curiosities and get boring when they take up too much screen time. The cannibals of Terminus and Wolves were terrifying and didn’t stick around long enough to have to spend a lot of time talking and explaining themselves. The Saviors have been around for a season and Negan for half of that and I’m already bored of them.

  The first two episodes of this half season were action/adventure oriented and most importantly fun to watch. The Walking Dead is best when the survivors move from place to place and are driven to accomplish short term goals like raiding a food pantry or finding medical supplies or fighting their way through groups of zombies. When they are stuck in one location like the prison, Herschel’s farm, and now Alexandria the show bogs down with too much talk because the show stops being about the short term and starts focusing on civilization building and character development which is nice in small chunks but is better left for soap operas. It appears that the next episode will be Savior-centric but hopefully the rest of the season will show Rick’s band of survivors on the road gathering what they need to win a hopefully short war against the Saviors.

Friday, February 17, 2017

Meet The New Boss

  I’ve been working on site at a company in Ames Iowa the last 15 months. Ames is 37 miles from my house which is a lot closer than the 60 mile commute to West Des Moines. Everything has been going good. The company in Ames seems happy with my work, the company I work for makes money from farming me out, and I have a good paying job with health care, a 401k match, and four weeks’ vacation/sick time that grew each year I worked for the company which will be six in March.

  Or should I say would have been six in March. Two weeks ago my boss drove to Ames to meet me for a ‘status meeting’ and lunch. Over lunch I found out that the status of our department was that the large company that bought our company years ago decided to close our department. This wasn’t a surprise for me since in the last year there has been an exodus of the senior leadership of the older company and the new company has been very aggressive about consolidating all the companies they have bought in the past few years which are now all located in one building in West Des Moines and have been rebranded into one company name with different divisions. The custom programming department I work for doesn’t seem to fit in the new company which is mostly focused towards selling and maintaining networking and phone systems with little to no custom programming.

  I was told I had a number of choices. I could work another 60 days and receive a severance package and be unemployed, I could find another job before the 60 days in which case I wouldn’t be unemployed but the severance package would be problematic since I was leaving the company, or I could ‘transition’ to the staffing company that was bought by the large company that bought our company years ago and be farmed out to the same place in Ames to work.

  My situation is no different than most people. I work to pay the bills and also to make sure I have health coverage. I had lunch with a man and a woman from the staffing company three weeks ago on a Friday. They were well dressed, very polite, smiled a lot, and paid for my lunch. We talked about my ‘brand’ and I mentioned that at 56 years old I was probably too old to have a ‘brand’. Then we talked about how since I was already working at the company in Ames it would be a seamless transition with the only difference being that the company I am working for was now going to pay this staffing company instead of my old department. Then the seamless transition started to split at the seams. The staffing company does not give their contractors vacation time or paid holidays and the contractors are assigned to a ‘higher tier’ of health care coverage. The ‘higher tier’ does not mean the contractors get more coverage, rather that the contractors pay much more for the same coverage.

  I was told by the staffing people that I could expect enough of an increase in my hourly rate to offset the loss of benefits. It was a very nice meeting at a very nice restaurant and we all said very nice things (even me). I did notice that even though we were at this restaurant for so long that the all the other tables turned twice staffing guy only left a minimal tip.

  That afternoon I got an email from staffing guy wondering if I had any questions. I had only one question and that was if there wasn’t a position from the staffing company available when my current assignment ended who would be paying for my health care. I didn’t ask the question because I didn’t know the answer – I asked the question because I wanted to see how long it would take to get the answer.

  Since I couldn’t imagine a staffing company not knowing the answer to this very simple question when I got an email the next Monday that the staffing company was researching the answer to my question I started looking around to see what jobs were around. Luckily there are plenty of programming jobs around and I picked two companies I was going to apply to. The company I was stationed at knew that my department was being closed. I told them I didn’t think that I was going to be moving to the staffing company. This company has always been straight with me and told me that they would give me and my company three months’ notice before I wouldn’t be needed there so I wanted to be straight with them and let them know that I may not be able to reciprocate and give them three months notice.

  I’ve been through this scene before. I worked for a staffing company that I signed a contract for two years at an agreed upon rate. At the end of the first year the company called me to congratulate me on the fact that I’d been renewed. I asked if this meant a third year only to be told ‘never mind’ because my ‘2-year’ contract was only a one year contract and the printed copy that said two years was only for my benefit. The nebulous mature of the ‘contract’ was confirmed when the staffing company cut my pay in the middle of the second year of the contract. At that time the staffing company told me they would ‘over-communicate’ with me to make sure I was in the loop. I never heard again from the staffing company until the day I told them I would not be available after the second year of my contract ended because I got a new job. Then the staffing company called me and told me that they had been working on my new deal and they were just about to call me and let me know about the huge raise I was going to get. What a coincidence.

  Now maybe this staffing company was different than the other staffing company but I’ve had experience with plenty of these companies and so have my friends and for the most part we have come to the conclusion that working for a staffing company means you are eminently disposable. Maybe this staffing division is better than the rest and maybe they aren’t but a company that doesn’t offer their employees any benefits or won’t answer a simple question doesn’t make me think they are any different except maybe worse than the other staffing companies.

  In the next week the place where I’m assigned asked me if I would consider contracting directly through them instead of through a staffing company. They checked with their legal department and I made an offer and it was accepted. 10 days after my initial meeting with staffing guy and staffing woman, staffing guy called me to run through the numbers. My pay would be raised by a little more than the amount needed to make up for no paid vacation, no holidays, and the massive increase in the cost of health benefits. It turns out that the staffing company’s health care costs as much as it would cost me to buy it privately. I asked for the answer to my original question and staffing guy told me that if I was not on assignment I was considered unemployed and had to purchase my health care out of my pocket.

  Then staffing guy told me that I had to sign the ‘transition paperwork’ within two days. This reminded me of my previous experiences with staffing companies. While there are no quick answers for the contractors’ requests the questions from the staffing company seem more like demands that leave little to no room for reflection. I told staffing guy that since it took him 10 days to answer my question I would like to take 10 days to think about the offer. Staffing guy said OK and I waited a couple of days and tendered my resignation to my old job and let the staffing company know that I wouldn’t be joining them.

  Working for myself is a boatload of hassle - there are extra tax forms to fill out, expenses to track, insurances to buy, and I even have to pay my taxes quarterly. I was happy working at my company (6 years is the second longest I’ve been working anywhere) but I didn’t leave them – they left me. As is the case with most working people I’m a red pen line drawn through my name from being unemployed but it seems to me I’ll have a better chance at avoiding the red pen by not having the layer of a staffing company in between me and the company that is ultimately paying the bills. The staffing company is kind of like a matchmaker in that they have access to both the programmers that need jobs and the companies that need people but in this case I was already bringing the company to the table so I didn’t need the staffing company and if circumstances change there are plenty of staffing companies around.

  I don’t know how this will work out. It is like buying a car or any other big decision in that I won’t know whether it was a good choice or a bad choice until I get down the road a few years. I do feel good that when suddenly faced with an unpredictable situation I acted swiftly and honestly instead of sticking my head in the sand and hoping for the best like I did 10 years ago when the company I worked at for 13 years was sold and I waited fruitlessly for a promised retention bonus. So even though Monday I’ll be going to work in the same location in Ames that I went to today and will still be doing the same work with the same people it will be very different because I’ll have a new boss which is me. I hope we get along.

Friday, February 10, 2017

Beagles In Winter

I need a blogging break so I've once again called on America's favorite beagle bloggers, Baxter and Daisy, to fill in for me. It seems that our beagles are uncharacteristically upset about the weather but I'll let them tell you all about it.

Hi Daisy! Hi Baxter! Here we are with another blog for our fans. We haven’t written since our birthday in November. It’s been so cold I haven’t felt like writing anything. Me either! The older I get the less I like the cold weather. Maybe we can move to Florida or Arizona. That would be nice but Hank and Kathy aren’t going anywhere so neither are we. At least it’s already February. March will be here before we know it. Then it will get warm and the flowers will come up. I like flowers – especially daisies! I figured you would. We found one piece of good news lately. That’s right. Hank said he wasn’t going to go away to Okoboji in April to do chess stuff. He’s been leaving us every year in April forever. And then we don’t get any beef stick treats on our walks that weekend. We miss Hank when he goes away for a weekend. And we miss our beef stick treats.

I don’t think Hank and Kathy like winter weather either. When we take our Sunday walk to the duck pond we don’t walk around the pond when it’s cold. That’s right Baxter. When it’s warm Kathy feeds the ducks and geese and then we walk around the whole pond. Now we go to the pond, Kathy feeds the geese and ducks bread and corn, and then we leave and go right to the corner for our beef stick treats! YUM!! I love beef stick treats! As much as I love walking around the duck pond in warm weather, getting our beef stick treats earlier is one good thing about winter!

There's a big difference between summer and winter at the duck pond!

Do you know what else I don’t like about winter, Daisy? I don’t but I have a feeling you’ll tell me. I don’t like how we don’t see many of our friends on our walks. That’s very true Baxter! All our friends are indoors when it’s cold outside. Hank and Kathy take us for walks no matter what the weather is. That’s so we’ll stay fit and trim. It’s certainly working for me – I weighed 29 pounds at our last checkup. Not 36 pounds like some beagle I know. That’s a good weight for me – I’m just big boned.

You’re just big. But I can’t wait to see all our friends again Especially the SODA gang! SODA GANG? What’s that? The Society Of Daisy Admirers, of course! The members are all the people who stop us on our walks to pet me and tell me how pretty I am and what a good dog I am and how nice my collar looks. Like who? There’s Jasmine and Savannah and her sister and just so many others! All the SODA gang would pet you if you would let them. I’m too shy to let too many people pet me. But I have a club of my own admirers! Oh really? What’s it called? Uh..the Baxter Lovers of America’s Heartland! Yeah. That’s it. BLAH? That’s the name of your fan club? BLAH? We are legion! BLAH is made up of all the people that tell me how handsome I am and like my pictures on Facebook. My pictures are on Facebook too Baxter. No one just likes your pictures. They like OUR pictures, although they may like my pictures better.

Here I am getting attention from a few of the SODA (Society Of Daisy Admirers) members.

BLAH or no BLAH. I’m sick of winter, Daisy. And then we got the bad news from the newspaper. What news, Baxter? We are going to have six more weeks of winter! Who says? Every February 2nd, this groundhog in Pennsylvania named Phil pops out of the ground and looks at his shadow. If he sees it and goes back in his hole there is six more weeks of winter and if he stays out there will only be two more weeks of winter. I saw that but I didn’t pay any attention. Who in their right mind thinks a groundhog in Pennsylvania can predict how long winter is? It was in the paper so it must be true! Hmm…You have a point there, Baxter. I also saw it on the internet and we know that everything on the internet is true also. This is so stupid. Why should some groundhog far away get to tell me how long winter is going to be just because he’s on the internet?

You know Baxter, that groundhog isn’t the only animal on the internet. That’s right! We’re on the internet too. Hank posts pictures of us every week on Facebook. And we write on Hank’s blog and our posts are always on the top of the Beagle page on reddit.com. We’re certainly the most literate beagles around. Why don’t we start our own tradition to see how long winter is going to be? I like that but only if we can make sure that winter is going to end soon. We walk all the time. How about if the next time we walk you look at your shadow. I can do that. But what happens after I see it? If you bark at your shadow that means we have two more months of winter. That’s a great idea, Daisy! I never bark at my shadow. You need to have something to do so we know there is just a few weeks left in winter. I know! If I lay down in the grass that means winter will be over in 10 days. That’s a nice touch! People will want to hear our prediction if we promise a shorter winter than the competition (I learned that from the election!). And I’m awesome at laying down in the grass. It’s what I do best! Great! Let’s get Hank and Kathy to take us out to check the weather.

10 days of winter or 2 months? Let's find out!

How about that! Less than 10 days left in winter. Great job, Baxter! I’m feeling warmer already! Better move over, Phil the groundhog! Yeah! There's some new weather sheriffs in town and their names are Daisy… and Baxter!

Friday, February 3, 2017

My Favorite Detective

  There are as many types of fictional detectives as there are writers and actors and actresses but all great detectives primarily use their brains or their brawn to solve their cases. I feel that the endpoints of the detective spectrum are Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes at the ‘brains’ side and Mickey Spillane’s Mike Hammer at the ‘brawn’ end. Of course Holmes was well versed in the martial arts and Hammer was no dummy but while Sherlock Holmes tended to solve his cases with deductive reasoning Hammer’s answers were more likely to come from his fists or his Colt .45. When I was growing up Clint Eastwood’s Dirty Harry was a modern version of Mike Hammer while the Holmes vein was well represented by the Perry Mason reruns – yes Mason was a defense attorney but he would inevitably prove his client’s innocence via deductive reasoning and the facts gathered by Paul Drake, his trusted private investigator.

  Most all detective shows fall somewhere in the middle of the spectrum. There are brainy lawyers or detectives like Matlock or Barnaby Jones with a younger sidekick to handle the ‘brawn’ part of the equation with plenty of police shows with characters like Blue Bloods’ Danny Reagan or Law & Order: SVU’s Elliot Stabler that think with their fists and guns first before using their brains.

  There is one type of detective that fits in the brainy spectrum and yet are in a class by themselves. For lack of a better term I would call these detective’s the ‘Quirky Detectives’. The quirkiest television detective is Adrian Monk. Monk has numerous phobias and is deathly afraid of germs but uses his obsessive compulsions to keep everything around him in order and eventually leads him to discover the holes in every ‘perfect crime’ he is asked to solve.

  Another quirky detective is Vincent D’onofrio’s Bobby Goren in Law & Order: Criminal Intent. Goren comes from a broken home and eventually finds out his father is a serial killer. Goren’s extreme intelligence continually keeps him in hot water with his superiors as he insists on using his unconventional though effective methods to uncover the real motivations of his murder suspects.

  My all-time favorite television detective comes from the ‘quirky’ tree and that is Peter Falk’s Columbo, who made his debut as part of the NBC Mystery Movie rotation in the early 1970’s. When the show was cancelled in 1978 the character took an 11 year hiatus before returning to ABC as a series of made for television movies running from 1989 to 2003. Falk’s Columbo looked to be a buffoon with an ancient foreign car, a rumpled raincoat, an omnipresent cigar, wiht an occasional appearance by his Columbo-like basset hound named 'Dog'. Columbo has the habit of seemingly forever rummaging through his pockets looking for a scrap of paper while pestering his suspect with the most inane questions meant to elicit their unknowing help in proving their own guilt. But beneath the bumbling veneer was a brilliant detective mind not unlike a Monk or Sherlock Holmes. One of the hallmarks of the Columbo movies was the audience witnesses the murder in the first part of the show which would set up an inevitable battle of wits between a normally well to do murderer (the series was set in Los Angeles) and the rumpled Columbo.

  Why am I going on about Columbo? Because Kathy got me a boxed set of all the ABC Columbo movies for Christmas and I am struck with the exception quality of the movies after watching the first handful. The movies don’t make a parody of the Columbo character but are self-aware of the character’s foibles. These later movies make it seem that Columbo knows how annoying he is to his suspects by popping up in their social settings and continually asking ‘Just one more thing’ as soon as it appears he has finally left. I’ve watched three of the first five movies this past month and they are all classics but one was by far my favorite Columbo movie that I happily watched even though I’d seen it many times before.

  ‘Columbo: Murder, A Self-Portrait’ stars Patrick Bauchau as a noted painter Max Barsini who is busy paintings nudes of his nubile model Julie for an upcoming exhibition. He does his painting and has an affair with Julie under the watchful eye of his wife\business manager Vanessa (played by Peter Falk’s wife Shera Danese). Vanessa understands the situation because she was one Max’s model and he married her after divorcing his first wife Louise who lives next door to Max. All three women combine to meet Max’s many needs as Julie serves as his ‘muse’, Vanessa manages his fortune, and Louise cooks cioppino for the group dinner in the group’s introductory scenes.

  Max’s world becomes complicated when Louise declares her intention to marry her former psychologist and leave Max’s sphere of influence. Max and Louise have a heated conversation when he asks her if she and her fiancĂ© have ever discussed ‘that which they have never spoken of’ implying some grisly deed of the past. Max then plans Louise’s murder and gives himself an alibi by offering to make a painting of the bar he and Louise lived above when he was a struggling artist in order to help the bar owner attract customers. The bar owner agrees and Max gives the proviso that he will paint his picture in the upstairs loft of the bar and must not be disturbed. While Vito the bar owner is downstairs thinking Max is painting the picture Max (who has already painted the picture in his studio before) is sneaking off to the beach where Louise swims, suffocates her with a rag doused in paint thinner, and dumps her on the beach.

  This is where Columbo comes in. He meets Max on the beach and is immediately suspicious of foul play when he finds that the drowned Louise is wearing one contact lens and the other lens is in her case. In order to stay close to the investigation, Max offers to paint a portrait of Columbo. During Columbo’s investigation he receives audio tapes from Louise’s fiancĂ© from therapy sessions where Louise talks about three terrifying dreams and he shares these with Max while seated for his portrait.

  Eventually Columbo uncovers Max’s fatal slip up and elicits the inevitable confession while finally getting to view his finished portrait. All in all the plot follows the standard Columbo plot but what makes this movie (and many of the early ABC remakes of Columbo) special was the incredible attention to detail. When Columbo plays the audio tapes of Louise’s dreams, the dreams are replayed in black and white but Columbo and Max are in each dream as painter and subject while a maelstrom of dream activity swirls around them. The movie has a detailed musical score where Barsini has his own ‘Vader’ like theme which Columbo shares as he uncovers key plot points aside from the Columbo theme song “This Old Man”. It is a great movie of with great characters and performances.

  This was just a taste of what I like so much about Columbo. I think if Columbo was a programmer he would be a lot like me – continually underestimated by appearance but always getting results. Columbo is equally about the iconic character and the great plots and ‘guest murderers’. With so many TV shows and characters being ‘rebooted’ it must only be a matter of time until Columbo get a chance to be reincarnated. I have no idea who would play the title character. The first name that comes to mind is Nicholas Turturro who played Sgt. Renzulli on Blue Bloods for a number of years along with many other character roles. Rebooting this successful formula show is an idea whose time will come at some point and I’m looking forward to it.