Thursday, December 31, 2015

Mel's Year in Review: 2015

Okay, there's no way around it. In the world of fiction writing, 2015 is definitely the worst year I've had ever since I've started this blog. And there aren't any good excuses this time. No actuarial exam. No super stressful times interrupting my writing. The most I can come up with is depression and lack of focus. (I promise a blog post on that depression shortly, but for now, it's time for goals.)

Though, at the same time, I've made great strides with my music, in my day job, and in other aspects in my life.

Even with this being the worst year ever, I've still had some progress in fiction writing. Here goes:
  • Short stories: In January I wrote and submitted "The First Actuary" to the 11th Annual SOA Speculative Fiction Contest. I didn't win a prize, but was told I came in very close. I submitted a few more stories to magazines, but had no bites.
  • Planet Justice: I am back to my sixth edit. I'm currently up to 4 chapters out of around 23.
Other stats for 2015:
  • 23 blog posts (a little more than half of my output for 2014).
  • 10,385 pageviews bringing the total to 52,696 (up 25%).
  • The Mormon Mel had 1 new post and 531 new pageviews for a total of 1,194 (up 80%).
  • The Music of Mel had 22 new posts and 2,360 new pageviews for a total of 3,431 (up 220%).
  • The Econo-Mel had 0 new posts and 180 new pageviews for a total of 1,635 (up 11%).
  • My YouTube videos had 31,615 views for a total of 295,116 (up 12%).
  • Adsense earnings performed so poorly that you're about to get an angry update post in another month or so.
  • I reviewed:
    • 10 movies
    • 7 TV shows
    • 1 book
    • 15 short stories
  • My personal favorite posts:
    • and the Seven Habits (where I find life lessons in a silly video game)
    • The Google Earth Plane Game (where I get excited matching pictures from the airplane with Google Earth images ... using math!)
    • What Me Lazy? (where I try to psychoanalyze why I stopped writing)
    • One Space or Two? (where I explain why I get annoyed with people complaining about those still using two spaces between sentences -- those people need to read my post above on and circles of influence)
How did you do in 2015?

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Peanuts: Don't Miss It

Okay. For full disclosure, I must confess that I was Charlie Brown growing up, and to some degree, I still am. Who can resist liking the loser kid that everyone loves--the kid who tries everything he can even when everything goes wrong--the kid who never seems to get up the courage to talk to that little red-headed girl?

Yes, I'd most likely enjoy any revival of Peanuts on the big screen. I was doubly and pleasantly surprised to see the movie deliver more than what I expected. For starters, the writers didn't ruin it with some annoying modern formula gimmick. They stayed true to Schulz's original comic strip. The writers also refrained from adding those dirty jokes that "only the parents pick up on" that end up in most cartoons.

The result is good clean fun. Snoopy battles the Red Baron. Schroeder plays his piano any chance he gets. Linus carries his blanket. And Charlie Brown is back to chasing the little red-headed girl. This is one of those rare gems: a rated G movie that isn't boring, and it leaves you feeling good at the end.

I also recommend catching this movie in 3D if available. I found the 3D almost magical and very well done. I loved the juxtaposition of flat images at different layers among other three-dimensional objects. In fact, I'd go so far to say I enjoyed the 3D in this film more than most of the recent PIXAR movies released in 3D.

And one last thing. I just have to say this next part, even though it might be somewhat of a spoiler. In all the TV specials and movies, and in most of the comics, Charlie Brown always messes up. Something always happens when he's oh-so-close to his goal. For example, he goes to the national spelling bee and loses at the end because he can't spell the breed of his own dog. AAARRRGGGHHH! For years, I watched these shows, hoping that once--just once--Charlie Brown would succeed at something. I mean, if Charlie Brown could reach his goal, then maybe I could too?

Well, this movie delivers, and one of my life-long dreams is realized. Yay!

This movie is fun for the whole family. Go catch it while it's still in the theaters, and enjoy.

Saturday, October 31, 2015

Patterson's Honeymoon

Why would a sci-fi buff such as I read a romance thriller book like Honeymoon by James Patterson and Howard Roughan? Because it was homework. I'm taking the new Patterson Masterclass course, which uses this book in examples. My reaction: I hope the course uses the book to show what works and what doesn't -- we'll see.

Craig Reynolds is an undercover detective investigating a series of suspicious deaths. Nora Sinclair is the black-widow woman who loves men and kills them. While this is all going on, the Tourist is trying to figure out what's in that suitcase that's getting people killed.

What works: the book is very easy to read. As one may expect from Patterson, it's a page turner. The prose is no-nonsense right-to-the-point English. That is, there's no flowery language to slow one down.

The well-planned-out plot is interesting enough to hold my attention, even though it uses many cliches.

What doesn't work: The book relies very heavily on "things aren't always as they appear." I love books that use this device effectively, but this isn't one of them. The writers withhold several details from the reader that are easily known to the characters. Thus the reader is the only one not in the know. Some reveals toward the end didn't even do anything for me.

Also, the characters are as shallow as they come. They exist, they do things, and it's hard for me to care when one of them bites the dust.

My recommendation: if you happen to be going on some beach trip, and you want to take a book to pass the time, and you don't want to remember the experience years from now, this is the book for you.

Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Goosebumps: Good Scunny Fun

"Scunny" is a word my kids taught me. It's "scary" plus "funny," which is what the Goosebumpsmovie is. Well, maybe more funny than scary, but if you grew up with the books and TV show, you'll most likely know what you're going to get. There are scary parts, but nothing that should scar your children for life.

The movie is cheesy, though according to my kids, it was nowhere near as cheesy as the TV show. The bad jokes are in there, but the special effects and actual acting are on a much higher level. Jack Black is funny as R. L. Stine, and his fake accent is hilarious. Stine sounds nothing like that, by the way, but it's fun imagining that he does.

The movie is a tad bit slow getting to the monsters, but the delivery is worth it. It's nice to get to know the kids before they get into trouble, and they're not just placeholders, but rather they are distinct characters that the audience seemed to enjoy.

My only complaint, which goes for many of Spielberg, Lucas, and other action movies, is that the problem is so drastic that if it were to really happen, it would wipe out everyone in a matter of minutes--no, make that seconds. The good guys are just that good in holding off the monsters--I guess.

My kids seemed to complain that some of their favorite books were not well represented in the movie, but they loved the ones they did see. My favorite was the flying poodle. (I'm not sure what that says about me.)

Since it wasn't filmed in true 3-D, we skipped that effect, though it appears some parts could be a little more enjoyable in 3-D.

Overall, the movie succeeds in capturing the essence of nearly all R. L. Stine books. It's a perfect Halloween movie for the whole family. Go catch it in the theater and enjoy.

Tuesday, October 13, 2015

The Martian: Really Good Science

When they were casting for The Martian, they were looking for someone with experience playing an astronaut stranded on a planet doing the best they can to get home. When they sawInterstellar, they knew they had their man.

Sorry, couldn't resist the joke. The two roles are similar, but in The Martian, Matt Damon is given much more material to work with, and he delivers like he never has before. He's funny. He's emotional. He makes the role believable.

Even though Damon is alone on Mars, a full cast of characters works together to try and bring him home. There is even friction on Earth as different parties deliberate on how to bring the task to pass.

And get this. The science is awesome. It's by far the most accurate science I've seen in a movie -- possibly ever. Hopefully this movie will inspire and push science ahead.

My only complaint is that I don't have the option near here to watch it in IMAX (or IMAX Digital). It's been pushed out by The Walk. Nonetheless, I did watch it in 3D, which added cool depth in some scenes. Ridley Scott chose to film in "real" 3D and not the fake/need-to-be-converted 3D, so there aren't any anomalies like Sandra Bullock's disconnected foot in Gravity.

Go catch this movie in the theater. Bring your friends. Go science! Enjoy.

Wednesday, September 30, 2015

New Shows - Fall 2015

For some people, this is the most exciting time of the year -- Fall premiere season. Overall, I'm impressed with more sci-fi offerings, plus a reboot of the Muppets. Who doesn't love the Muppets? This time I had to choose which shows to watch, knowing that I'm leaving some good shows off the list. (Hey ... that just means I can Netflix it later!)

Here are some new shows that I'm checking out.

Fear the Walking Dead (Sunday 9PM AMC)

The short six-run season is just about over. Despite its not-so-original title, I've enjoyed the first five episodes. This story shows us the beginning of the zombie apocalypse, a time when people are starting to figure out what's going on.

The first episode was a little slow, but the second and subsequent shows got a lot better.

It's a different kind of scary, mainly because the characters don't know how zombies work. None of them read Max Brooks' books, I guess.

The only disappointment I have is that the writers decided to skip a week, so I feel like I missed out on some of the action that attracted me to the show.

But hey. The season finale is this coming Sunday, and it looks like it could be fun.

The pilot episode is available for free on, and all episodes will come to Hulu sometime next year.

Minority Report (Monday 9PM FOX)

It's another one of those "I loved the movie" situations. Two episodes in, I'm impressed with the eye-candy (and yeah ... I'm talking about the special effects). The story is okay, but a little forced. Why didn't Dash do what he does earlier? Why is his brother so available and unavailable at the same time? And why is he a jerk?

The title is super-unoriginal. At least put in a subtitle. How about: "Minority Report: They're All Grown Up"?

I still had fun watching. It has potential.

The Muppets (Tuesday 8PM ABC)

My kids don't understand why I love the Muppets so much. They're just so ... so .... aaaaahhhaahhhahh! Wocka wocka!

I still haven't seen any episodes, but they're waiting on my DVR. I hear that Kermit gets a new girlfriend, and the format of the show is similar to "The Office." I also hear that the show is a little "adult" -- whatever that means. I'll watch an episode before I inflict it on my kids.

Update 10/13/2015: Okay, I saw two episodes, and I'm not sure if it works.  Most of the dirty jokes are funny, but ... IT'S THE MUPPETS!  I think it misses the point.

Heroes Reborn (Thursday 8PM NBC)

I'm one of those who stuck with the original series through the bitter end. I can't remember what happened in that last season other than some circus thingy, and how the first season was the best, but I'm ready for more.

The pilot episode was decent. Zach Levi plays a bad guy, but we all know he's going to turn good -- right? And it's so cute how he's all serious.

The show opens with a disaster, which I'm sure will be explained by the end of the season. And what's the deal with the black-hole-meets-aurora thingy?

I'm hoping for a fun first season back.

Shows that look good, but I passed due to time:

Limitless (Tuesday 10PM CBS)
Quantico (Sunday 10PM ABC)

Ongoing shows I'm still watching:

Continuum (Friday 11PM Syfy): The time travel mechanics have gone to plaid, but it's still interesting. It's in its last season, and it's still a lot better than the 5th season of Andromeda (which I couldn't finish).

Doctor Who (Saturday 9PM BBC America): Man that was one killer opening. What comes next?

The Simpsons (Sunday 8PM FOX): Ever faithful. Though I'm concerned with some of the directions they may go this year. (Note: the new Minority Report show predicts a 75th season of the Simpsons!)

The Last Man on Earth (Sunday 9:30PM FOX): The show got better toward the end of the first season. I want to see Phil get back at Phil #2.

Haven (Thursday 10PM Syfy -- starts back October 8): It's the last half of the last season, and I just got to see how it ends, even though by this point it seems like whatever the writers want to do.

The Walking Dead (Sunday 10PM AMC -- starts back October 11): Rick is totally awesome. What more can I say?

Friday, September 18, 2015

Getting Ready For the X-Files?

On January 24, 2016, the X Files are coming back to TV for a short mini-series.  If you're anything like me, I bet you missed seeing the original episodes that aired between 1993 and 2002.  I was just too busy with school and being married and all that jazz.

So, a few months ago, I decided to start watching all the episodes so I'd be all caught up and ready for the upcoming mini-series.  And wouldn't you know it?  It's not going too well.  As of a couple of weeks ago, I was in the middle of Season 3, and I realized: If I watched one episode a day (which I can't), I still wouldn't be finished in time.


But all is not lost.  It didn't take long for me to realize that most of the episodes are "monster of the week" rather than "mythology" based.  I was getting frustrated.  I thought, "Can't I just watch the episodes that matter and skip all the fillers?"

Well, some people have put together lists.  This list is my favorite.  It not only lists "key" mythology episodes, but also throws in a few really good episodes.  It's less than half of what I have left to watch.

So now I'm back on schedule.  I've been trying it out for a week.  It's less filling, but I don't feel like I'm missing anything much.  Plus, I'm going to be ready!

Go, Mulder and Scully!  (I still think their names are hilarious.)

Monday, September 14, 2015

One Space or Two?

Even if you're not a writer, you've most likely heard someone go off the handle and say why we shouldn't use two spaces between sentences. Here's a good example:

Slate Magazine: Space Invaders

When I was young, I learned to use two spaces. And like Farhad Manjoo says, it wasn't just me. It's what everyone learned. However, when you use proportional fonts, one space just looks nicer than two. No one can explain to me why it does, but hey ... two periods is just "totally, completely, utterly, and inarguably wrong."


Because nearly every typesetter agrees it needs to be one space -- or at least that's what they say today. But wait ... twenty years ago when it was two spaces, were all those typesetters wrong?

I don't know. I suppose I could force myself to adhere to this new arbitrary rule. The problem is that it's ingrained into my psyche, much like how I go into auto-pilot when I play the piano or drive a car. There are so many little things that we do without thinking as we concentrate on the more important things. For example, if the car in front of me comes to a sudden stop, I think, "SLAM ON THE BREAKS!" I don't think, "Let's see. I need to take my foot -- my right foot over here -- take it off of this right pedal -- and apply downward pressure on this big middle pedal -- all while pulling on the steering wheel for extra weight and screaming obscenities." Whatever happens, it happens automagically and nearly instantaneously. If I were to stop and think about the process as it happens, I'd most likely crash.

Similarly, when I type, I prefer to think about what I'm writing, and now how I'm writing it. The two spaces just happen. Does that make me an idiot? Does that make me stubborn?

I'm not sure. When I read Manjoo's article, I can't help thinking, "Wow! Here's a man who thinks he's better than 99% of the world's population -- one who wastes his time getting angry over spacing in his friends' emails."

He states, "What galls me about two-spacers isn't just their numbers. It's their certainty that they're right." But wait! I'm not the one saying, "totally, completely, utterly, and inarguably wrong." I just don't care. I'm a writer, not a typographer. You might as well be some dork trying to tell me why your religion is right and mine isn't, because ... well ... that's exactly what it feels like. All these typographers have joined up with the Church of the One Space. It took the Chicago folks till 2003 to make the change, but as of today, they've all drunk the Kool-Aid.

More than once, Manjoo complains in his article about how many spaces he's had to delete in his editing profession. Please don't tell me that he removed each one of those spaces individually -- not in these days where you can convert two spaces to one in an entire novel in less than one minute with some simple mass search-and-replace schemes. You can even set up a Word macro to do it for you. Click a button, and WHAM, no more evil double spaces.

In fact, in writing this post, I typed with double-spaces, and then quickly removed the annoying &nbsp's that Blogger so nicely puts in for you.

Going forward, I will most likely continue to type with double spaces, because:

#1) I write science fiction, and most editors take or prefer monospace font, as described by the Science Fiction & Fantasy Writers of America.

#2) As I mentioned before, it is very easy to convert to just one space. If an editor really wants me to do the conversion, it's just click-click-click, and there -- it's done. All I care is that my story gets published.

#3) It's actually more difficult to mass-edit-convert from one space to two spaces.

#4) I've seen some proportional fonts where single spaces after a period actually seems to make it harder to read. This is one of those difficult decisions I'd prefer to leave with the editor and other experts. They'll make my story look good on paper.

#5) I think I'll enjoy continuing to anger typesetters. We definitely need more people in the world that get angry over nothing. Cue the rants on facebook!

So, is it one space or two? As a writer, I just don't care.

Monday, August 3, 2015

Pixels: Adam Sandler Does It Again

If you like Adam Sandler movies and video games from the 80s, you'll most likely enjoy Pixels. It's funny. It's cute. It has pretty cool special effects. It's even child friendly. It was exactly what I expected, and I enjoyed it.

What all that said, the plot was very light. It was nothing much more than a series of funny coincidences woven together into an excuse for a washed-up gamer to become hero of the planet. Yeah--your typical Adam Sandler movie.

Some things don't make sense, such as: had we launched a probe in 1982, it would not make it any than the inside of our Oort cloud by now. So, how could aliens intercept it? (Well, I suppose they could have been in the neighborhood.)

But who cares?

If you want a light movie with a hint of video game nostalgia (though only with the more popular games) and mindless fun, go catch this one in the movie theater before it disappears.

Weep -- whap -- woop.

Friday, July 24, 2015 and the Seven Habits

Who needs another addictive game? I've got one for you. It's called, which you can play here. I seldom review video games, but this one is just so awesome.

You start off as a tiny cell with mass 10. You can gain mass by either eating the tiny little rainbow dots (about 1-2 points each), or by eating another player's cell. The bigger you are, the slower you go, but the more you can eat. In the picture above, I was the 2nd biggest cell on the map, and I don't think doge lasted much longer. Poor little doge.

You move around by simply moving the mouse pointer in the direction you want to go. No clicking necessary. You can also split yourself (with the space button) to launch and destroy other cells. And there are viruses, and just all around coolness.

I have two warnings for you, though. #1) The names people choose can be somewhat offensive, but there's a no-name option if you don't want to see them. #2) Did I mention this game is offensive?

What's also cool is that is isn't too hard to get to the number 2 spot. I've only been playing for a week, and there I am (temporarily) on the leaderboard. #2!!!!! I'm still trying to get #1, but evidently that's a little harder.

Plus, while you play, you can think about a very important concept discussed in all the 7 Habitsbooks. Let me explain the "Circle of Influence."

Recently in the news, you've most likely heard about fun controversial topics such as gay marriage and the Confederate battle flag. And I bet that you had some strong feelings one way or the other. Perhaps you took to facebook and poured out your guts. This demonstrates our "Circle of Concern." This is stuff that we worry about -- things we may want to change, or concerns about things not going our way.

But when you think about it, what do we really accomplish when we pour our guts on facebook? Perhaps 200 people tops would see our post. Perhaps we'd get into a good discussion with our friends. Maybe friends get angry, or someone decides to troll. And then ... our posts disappear into oblivion. Sure, posts are eternal, but nobody cares anymore -- after a while.

The sad thing is, these efforts seldom change or affect the big outcome. That's because we often worry about things outside of our "Circle of Influence." Who do you have power to influence? Your family members? People at work? At church? In your neighborhood? If you're anything like me, your circle doesn't extend much further than that.

Now think of how much time you may have spent on one of those passionate facebook posts that don't really go anywhere. Was it worth the time? Or could you have spent that same time attacking issues within your Circle of Influence?

Covey suggests that we shrink our Circle of Concern so that we can spend more time worrying about stuff that really matters to us. If we do that, something strange happens. Our Circle of Influence actually expands. We gain more responsibilities, and we become able to influence more people.

Imagine if you're some famous person who has accomplished a lot. If you were to then opine on some controversial subject, how many people do you think would hear you? More than 200? How about 200 million?

If you're really passionate about these controversial subjects, and you want to effect real change, then you can take real steps to become a person of more influence. You can study what it takes to become a politician, or what it takes to write an influential blog. You can take classes to increase your skills, and so on, and so on.

In the meantime, you can practice with As your circle starts small, you wouldn't want to take on the biggest dudes. They'd swallow you up whole without blinking. You'd be better off eating the little tidbits until you're big enough to start attacking other players. Then as you get bigger, you can swallow bigger players, and before you know it, you're that biggest dude.

So have fun. Increase your circle of influence, and show them what you're made of.

Update (8/1/2015): I did it! Boom baby!

Also, here's a funny Youtube video that's a good energetic intro to Agario. Warning, though ... a few of the names are a little offensive.

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Ant-Man: This Is No Small Movie

Talk about surpassing expectations.  When I first saw the movie poster for Ant-Man, I thought, "Really Marvel?  This is stupid.  Do you really expect me to believe yet another one of your superheroes?  I mean ... being small is a superpower.  Really?"

But then after seeing a trailer that didn't look so bad, I figured it was worth a try.  Even though it's another one of those Marvel-formula movies, it was surprisingly funny, original, entertaining, and sufficiently action-packed.

In fact, among the Marvel movies, I'd place this one near the top.  I enjoyed Ant-Man more than both Avengers movies, and maybe even more than the first Thor.  I even laughed much harder than I did with Guardians of the Galaxy, even though the latter was overall funnier.

My only complaint (aside from inconsistent science, which I don't care much about) is that the writers chose to place Ant-Man in the same Avenger universe.  The movie does so well as a standalone, it doesn't need that extra baggage.  The tie-in felt forced and unnecessary, but yet still entertaining and funny.  The writers will do what they do, and they evidently have future plans for Ant-Man.

Perhaps after the movie's successful opening we should hope to see him again sometime soon.  Count me in!

Thursday, June 18, 2015

Inside Out and Back Again

PIXAR does it again with Inside Out.  First I must warn you that this isn't a typical Disney movie, as the girl has both a mother and a father, and they're not divorced or dead.  I know, I know.  You must see it to believe it.

In this movie, we get the see all the emotions inside of our head.  In rainbow color order, there's Anger, Joy, Disgust, Sadness, and Fear.  At first, I was a little skeptical ... I mean voices in our heads?  A whole control panel?  Core memory islands?  Could these concepts last a whole movie?

Well, they did it impressively.  They held my attention the whole time.  It was highly imaginative, colorful, funny, and emotional.  Yeah -- emotional.  I found myself looking back into my own memories, trying to remember ones that were long forgotten.

And did I forget to mention the beautiful animation?  As usual, PIXAR did a good job.

I also enjoyed the music, which had a slight hint of retro 60's to go with the colorful animation.

I caught the 2D version, but I still noticed a lot of depth.  The story held its own without the 3D, but I think this would be a good one to catch in 3D.

My recommendation: go see this one in the theater with your kids.  It's lots of fun for the whole family.  And don't forget to stay for the first couple of minutes of the end credits.

Friday, June 12, 2015

Jurassic World: As Good As the First

After an okay sequel and whatever that third movie was, Steven Spielberg actually pulled off a successful revisit to the island, and he spared no expense.  With a budget of $150 million or more, Spielberg delivers an action-packed, exciting, and scary experience.

As you would expect, the plot is essentially the same as the first movie, only with more interesting characters, less cheesiness, cooler special effects. and a lot more extras: dinosaurs and people.

Despite the cliches and Hollywood formula, I actually enjoyed the ride.  It's worth catching this one in the theater.  It's as good, if not better than the first.

A quick warning, though.  These dinosaurs are scarier, and some scenes are rather disturbing, so I would not take any smaller kids.  I'm hoping for a couple of good nightmares, myself, tonight.  We'll see.

Monday, June 1, 2015

What Me Lazy?

Am I lazy?  Is that my problem?

As I was reading one of my fellow writer's blogs, I came across this post: Five Reasons you Won't Make it as a Writer by the funny author John Hartness (warning -- beware of hilarious f-bombs).  He lists five different reasons writers fail, and they're all true, but is "lazy" the right word?

He says:
Stop whining about how much time you don’t have to write, or how much “real life” gets in the way, or how much time it takes to raise your kids, or work your job, and how you’re too tired after working all day, coming home, fixing dinner, feeding a family, cleaning up after dinner, bathing the little ankle-biters, getting them to bed and then performing your husbandly duties so your wife still loves you. Yeah, shut your cake hole.
What he means to say is: "I don't want to hear your excuses.  If you wish to make it in this industry, you need to write A LOT OF WORDS."  While John doesn't want to hear your excuses (and I don't want to hear your excuses either), you still need to come to terms with yourself as to why you're really not writing -- and fix things.

The first thing to realize is that if you're not writing, it's only because you DO NOT WANT to write.  It's as simple as that.  I'll be honest about myself.  I write in spurts.  When I'm at a writing high, I write like crazy.  When I get tired of writing, I take a rest.  It's like a big cycles of ups and downs.  Of course, I think I would prefer a more steady habit of writing, but I'll take what I can.

The best way to de-lazy-fy yourself is to figure out what makes you NOT want to write, and attack that head on.  You may come up with a list of excuses (ala John Hartness above), but I think to be most successful, you need to really look inside yourself and find that one true reason you're currently stuck.

I'll try to take a stab at several reasons one may stop writing (many of which I've suffered myself at one time or another) ...

  • It's not fun anymore.  (Find a way to make it fun.)
  • Day job stress really is getting to me.  (Find a way to get better work/life balance and find a positive attitude so you can take advantage of any free time.)
  • It's too noisy at home.  (Maybe find another place to write, or write late at night or early in the morning when everyone else is asleep, or even learn to work in the noise.)
  • No one is listening to me.  (Just scream louder.  Eventually they'll listen.)
  • I'm a terrible writer.  (Are you really?  Sometimes when I think I've written terrible stuff, I'll go back a year later to read it again to find it isn't so bad.  Besides, I'm learning more and more that people care more about what you say rather than how you say it.)
  • My current project just isn't working.  (Why isn't it working?  Perhaps you need to set it aside and work on something else.)
  • I'm so depressed.  (I haven't quite figured out a solution to this.  Though getting more sleep does seem to help the depression spell go away faster.)
  • I have all these shows to watch on Netflix before they yank them away.  (Setting limits is very important if you wish to get other productive work done.  Besides, if the show gets yanked, there are other good shows to replace it.)
As for me, I'm coming out of one of the driest spells I've had in years.  Yes ... I intentionally sacrificed everything else recently to pass one last stupid actuarial exam, but I did it.  And now it's time to reboot my fiction writing.  Who's with me?  Who else has a hundred crazy ideas in your head ready to be written?  Who's ready to let the words flow?  Let's do this!

Sunday, May 24, 2015

The Google Earth Plane Game

Today I had some fun.  I grabbed some pictures I had taken last week from my airplane window and thought, "Gee ... I wonder if I can find all of these on Google Earth."  And wouldn't you know it?  Using a little bit of math and a little pattern recognition, I found them all.

Step 1.  Start with a picture that's easy to find, such as a large recognizable land formation.  This one only took a couple of minutes to find.

Once you find that picture, you know which way the airplane window is facing.  And if you have timestamps on your pictures, you can estimate how many miles there are between them.  Just take the difference in minutes and multiply by 10.

For example, the picture above has a timestamp of 1:30:42.  The picture I took before that has 1:24:25.  That's a difference of 6 minutes, 17 seconds.  Take the seconds, divide by 60 and add to the number of minutes to get 6.28.  Then multiply by 10 to get 62.8 miles.

Once you have distance, you can estimate the direction of the airplane.  They like to follow curvy paths (along great circles on the globe).  So, if you start with the location of picture #1 and draw a line toward (or away from if going backwards) the destination point, and draw a line away from (or toward) the departure point, it will narrow down the location of your next picture.  (You can check out my very last picture at the end to see the lines I drew.)

I was surprised how fast I found the next obscure picture ...

Then I used the same technique to quickly find pictures #3 through #14.  Even the cloudy obscure circle-y ones were easy to find.

I challenge you to try the same game should you remember next time you're on a plane.  Can you find your pictures?  Have fun, and good luck!

Thursday, May 21, 2015

Poltergeist: The Remake Lives On

Who doesn't love scary clowns?  The remake of Poltergeist has plenty.  It also contains many of the favorite scenes you may remember from the original -- only a little more on the freaky side and with a few plots holes filled in.

Did the original need a remake?  I won't be a complainer, even though I saw the original at least twenty times and used to have many parts memorized.  The cool trailer above gave me hope that the remake would be a good rendition, taking what worked and modernizing it for a newer generation.  The final result did not disappoint me.

I enjoyed seeing everything with a different style and direction.  It's a good story.  The characters are likable and distinct. The acting is decent.  The music is freaky.  The 3-D effects are clear and the depth is exciting.  The depiction of the other side is wonderful.

It's difficult to judge which version I liked better.  It's hard to dethrone the love I have for the original, but I'll admit it was campy and full of plot holes.  (Why again, in the original, did the family decide to stay in the house after the first incident?  Funny!)  The remake is a tighter ship, but lacks much of the magic.  For example, the clown scene in the remake is freakier, but it is nowhere near as scary as it was in the original.

Those who haven't seen the original may not find this movie to be as scary as other recent horror movies, but I suspect that you may find it to be highly imaginative and cool.

And if you've seen the original, I strongly suggest catching this newer version in the theater in 3D.  Enjoy the ride.

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Imitation Game is a Good Imitation

As a computer programmer and mathematician, I couldn't resist seeing this movie about a favorite idol, Alan Turing.  As one of the pioneers who paved the way for modern-day computers, Alan helped to create a machine that would break the unbreakable German Enigma Code in The Imitation Game.

This very entertaining movie explores the mind of a genius, touching on practically all aspects one would expect in a story involving Mr. Turing.  There are references to the "Imitation Game" itself -- a test to see if an intelligence is human or machine.  We see to what lengths these guys went to keep the code breaking effort a secret.  The movie also explores what it was like to be gay back when it used to be illegal.

The movie also successfully captures what I like to call a Eureka moment, which is that very moment when you solve a very difficult problem, the heavens open up, and you see everything.  I've had these moments myself, and they are always pretty awesome.

However, there are a couple of small problems with the movie.  The writers took it upon themselves to dumb everything down so the audience could have a better chance of understanding, and they changed a few facts to make the drama a little more exciting.

For example, Alan Turing wasn't such a Sherlock-like sociopath.  In real life, he could get along with other geniuses, though he generally was socially inept otherwise.  Also, in real life, his superiors treated him with respect.  So, all that bit about wanting to fire him for building a stupid machine?  It didn't happen, but it sure did make good drama.

Also, the big aha leading up to the Eureka moment is really Codebreaking 101.  The trick they mentioned would have been the first things they tried.  But this is okay, as what led to the Eureka moment in real life probably would have been over all our heads.

Further, the whole idea of "It's midnight and now the Nazi code is changed and so we all have to start over from scratch and get angry and toss our papers on the floor" doesn't really make sense.  In real life, the code you were working on is still there, and there's no reason why you couldn't finish your work.  Even though it would be too late to decode "current" Nazi messages, you would still learn things and see how to get faster.  Guess what ... that's what happened in real life, too.  They got to where they could solve it in two weeks, then one week, and finally the breakthrough to do it in minutes.

Lastly, a comment on the music:  It took me a while to realize that most of the music imitates the sounds of the Turing machine.  Cool.

Regardless of the inaccuracies, the movie does get a lot right.  If you don't know anything about Alan Turing, I strongly suggest watching this movie and get a good introduction.  You'll get lots of good drama, too.

Friday, March 13, 2015

The AdSense Experiment - One Year Later

A year ago, I started an experiment with AdSense.  I let them put ads on my blog (and some YouTube videos), and they pay me according to how many clicks and views the ads get.  Clicks get more money than views.

You can read my first four posts on this subject here: Part 1Part 2Part 3Part 4

After one year, I now report that on the most part, it has been a fun failure.  This blog has earned me almost $6 over the past 12 months.  Woot!  Woot!  The YouTube portion (which I started later) has also earned me about $6 for a total of $12.

In one respect, that's actually a lot of money, considering I didn't put forth any labor.  But then again, if I consider it as payment for putting together blog posts and videos, it's not really that much money at all.  I could earn a higher hourly rate working a minimum wage job.

Plus, I'm thinking more and more that the ads don't look good on my blog.  They hardly seem to match the subject matter.  And as I mentioned earlier, it's difficult to control which questionable ads to turn off.  You can turn off certain categories, but often if I see a questionable ad, there's no good way to determine what it's category is, or to simply block that specific ad.  (As if I click on the ad to get information, I get penalized.)

The exact amount of earnings is still confusing.  If I click on the earnings report, it shows "estimated" earnings.  But why can't it be exact?  It gives me a sense that clicks aren't registering (technical problems), and/or AdSense decides to negate some earnings for whatever reason ... either way it seems that any error will resolve to benefit the company.  And no matter how I look at the numbers, I can never get them to add up to my "current balance."  What kind of money voodoo do they do?

When I did my taxes, I was technically supposed to report my earnings during the year even though I didn't receive a payment.  But there were two problems:

#1) I had no way to get an exact amount from their website.

#2) They provided no tax earnings report for me.  When I clicked on the link to take me to my tax reports, it said "Page not found," implying that there are no forms for me.

No tax report and no firm earnings amount meant no reporting earnings on my tax return.  But don't worry, Uncle Sam.  You'll get your taxes when I actually get paid.

At the beginning of 2015, I hit the magical $10 threshold.  That was kind-of fun.  I got something in the mail that contained some secret numbers for me to set up payment information.  This meant two things:

#1) I can now get paid my earnings whenever I want them.  If it hits $100, they'll automatically send me money.  (Though I still have to tell them how to send it to me.)

#2) I now have access to the payment reports, which provide more concrete numbers.  It shows how much payment actually got accrued to me.  And it shows how much came from this blog, and how much came from YouTube.  On a monthly basis, YouTube provides a slightly higher payout.  If only I had access to this info when I filed my taxes!

What's up next?  As soon as I finish my Justice novel and get it published, I'm planning on removing AdSense from my blog and replacing it with an ad to buy my book.  Then I'll have something that actually matches my blog content, and something that will pay more with each click.  I will still keep AdSense on my YouTube account, and the experiment will continue.

Thursday, March 12, 2015

Actuarial Speculative Fiction 2015 - The Stories

It's that time of every-other year when I give quick overviews of all the stories entered into the Actuarial Speculative Fiction contest.  For this 11th event, sixteen stories were submitted, including my own.

As I mentioned before, you can find the stories here.  Up till this coming Sunday, you can also vote for your three favorite stories, and the one with the most votes will get the reader's choice award.

After reading all the entries, I'm a little depressed, as the competition is pretty strong, and I don't think my entry is the best I've written, but then again, I'm always blind as to how good/bad my stories are.

I'll go ahead and get my story out of the way before presenting the other fifteen.

The First Actuary - Gog is a caveman who invents numbers and uses his intelligence to help his tribe survive and beat other tribes.  But something's wrong.  The numbers don't add up.  Before Gog can figure out the answer, he first needs to learn what the problem is.

Now I will introduce my personal favorites, of which I will choose three when I vote tonight.  These stories not only touch on actuarial topics, but they also have fun plots, and I think they're just cool.

If you only have time to read a couple, I recommend choosing from the following.

Proteus (Michael Anderson) - Tom Volker, an actuary, comes to realize his life is one big waste.  That is, until a unique opportunity comes along with a company that manufactures super bio-suits that monitor one's health and provide extra strength.

Chance of Failure (Gregory A. Dreher) - Richard Diamond, while suspecting foul play, investigates John Smith, the Actuary, and his company, which produces nanotechnology that extends a person's life.

Life After Death (Ken Feng) - After Hubbard Scientific (affiliated with the Church of Scientology) introduces a radical technique of preserving brains after death and implanting them in robot-like containers, an actuary Ken decides to investigate the company.

The Cascade Model (Kevin C Jones) - One day, Antonio Echevarria is tapped by the Actuary General herself to oversee a very important model in relation to a major energy breakthrough.  During his first day on the job, he's amazed to learn what really goes on behind the scenes, including seeing some very impressive complex models.

The Illustrious Career of Mister James Stephan, FSA (Steve Mathys) - Hoping to be inducted into the Humans Against Humanity Society, James Stephan presents his story of all the despicable acts he committed just to become chief actuary.

While not my favorites, the following stories are still enjoyable.  They also have fun plots, but they don't jive so much with my personality.  Chances are, you may find you like some of these better than my personal favorites.  In fact, the ultimate winner usually comes from my batch of second-favorites.

Dangerous Knowing (Karissa Burgess) - An unnamed actuary infiltrates a high-security facility in an attempt to obtain evidence to expose a massive government cover up involving children vaccinations.

Global Health (Marilyn Dunstan) - In this near-farcical story, several Russians combine forces in a clever attempt to fleece the American actuary, Rufus, who is gathering information to form the best healthcare system.  When you're done reading, you may start to wonder exactly how Obamacare came together.

For What It's Worth (Chris Fievoli) - After a lawyer loses another girlfriend to his job, he takes his friend's advice and tries out a new dating service ... run by actuaries.

The Ares Conjecture (Jerry Levy) - Peter Mir, who works for Predictive Global Conflicts, is tasked to get information from a retired actuary suffering from Alzheimer's.  While models are predicting a major incident building in the Kishrabia region, Peter hopes to find a way to diffuse the situation.  But what the retired actuary knows could change the world.

Closed Block (Ellen Torrance) - An unnamed protagonist writes in her diary as she starts a new job as President of a large insurance sub-sub-subsidiary covering North America.  She's excited with the opportunity to increase profits and get a big bonus.  However, she quickly learns that she's been shafted, and every idea she tries fails.  That is until she finds a creative way to get those profits.

The Twenty-Three (Nate Worrell) - Tom, an actuary, thinks he's about to score with a hot chick, but he doesn't realize that he's about to be abducted by a famous group of terrorists called the Twenty-three, bent on stopping the practice of gene splicing.

This last group contains a few stories that dive heavily into actuarial topics, containing not much plot beyond the ideas being presented.  As such, I predict that one would have to be an actuary to fully enjoy them.  They are nevertheless all interesting reads.

Hotel Zukunft: The Future is Different (Craig DeAlmeida) - Arthur, the ZRO at Hotel Zukunft, must find a way to explain a 10% increase of holdbacks to his superiors so that they can make the right decisions to prepare for the future.  This story is sprinkled with several different cool visions of the near future.

Two Improbable Suggestions (A. Haeworth Robertson) - Alex Morgan is an actuary who discovers an innovative new product to better calculate competitive cash surrender values on a life insurance policy.  I noticed that this exact entry also appeared in the contest 4 years ago, so I just now copied-and-pasted my previous overview.

Virtual Insurance (Rodge) - Roger must find a way to price insurance that covers the contingency of losing productivity due to getting lost in Virtual Reality games.  Even though I think this story is mainly for actuaries, I really enjoyed this one, finding it to be both intelligent and funny.  Maybe it's because I really like video games.

Blockchain Insurance Company (Gennady Stolyarov II) - While an actuary, Euclid Jefferson, travels in a self-driving car, an automated system presents to him a new type of auto insurance with very innovative policy terms.  This story provides a fun look into one possible future.

Friday, February 27, 2015

Actuarial Fiction 2015

Wouldn't you know it?  Actuaries are at it again -- predicting the future -- with fiction.

The Society of Actuaries puts on this event every odd year for actuaries to put forth their best effort in writing speculative fiction.  This year, I am one of 16 participants, and you can read all the stories here.

If you're interested in what actuaries think of this world, check it out and read these entertaining stories.  My own story looks to the past, way back, venturing to guess how the first actuary came into being.

Once you read all 16 stories, you can vote for your favorite three entries up until March 31 (look for the VOTE link at the linked website).

In another week or so, I'll present my mini-reviews of the other 15 stories.

Happy reading!

Friday, February 13, 2015

New Shows - Spring 2015

Here are three recent shows I've tried to watch around the first part of 2015.

The Librarians on TNT (Sundays @9PM) - This show has already finished its first season, but I was late catching up, as it began when I was deep in my exam studying.  I've tried to catch up after the exam with mixed success.  I caught seven of the ten episodes, and now I'm stuck on the eighth.

Before I continue with the review, let me stop to express my frustration with trying to catch shows on TNT.  I get the impression that TNT doesn't get along with my cable provider, Time Warner.  The cable On Demand feature only provided SD when it showed episodes.  TNT's own online replay service requires a TV Provider login, and Time Warner is not on their list.  So, if you missed this show, there's a good chance you're out of luck unless you pay $2 an episode somewhere.  The same thing happened to me with "The Last Ship."

So, if someone from TNT happens to read this review, just know that I'm a customer who is actually trying to watch your shows, but since you're not providing enough opportunities like other channels do, chances are ... I'm going to lose interest.  The best I can hope for is a marathon to catch the last three episodes of "Librarians" and the whole first season of "The Last Ship."

As for the show itself, I find it to be the perfect replacement for Warehouse 13.  It's practically the same show.  Instead of a warehouse full of "artifacts," it's a library full of "artifacts."  Only these artifacts are magic, which is somewhat scientifically explained.

The show is funny, and keeps my interest while I watch, but on the most part there's nothing really exciting about it.  It's just low-brain fun.  Plus you get to see Noah Wylie play a funny crazy guy.

12 Monkeys on Syfy (Fridays @9PM) - I loved the movie.  It's on my top ten list of favorite sci-fi shows.

The TV series is good, but different.

In both the movie and the TV series, James Cole is sent back in time in an attempt to stop a world-wide plague event from happening.  Along the way, he picks up clues and meets several different baddies.

As I watched the first three episodes, I mistakenly tried to compare them to the movie, and I found myself disappointed.  In the very first episode, Cole demonstrates a paradox by scratching the face of a watch, showing how the scratch on the younger watch shows up on the older watch, while at the same time destroying the rules of time travel set in the movie.

Then in the second episode, a new enemy is introduced who just didn't exist in the movie.  He's a cool enemy, but seems to put a different meaning to "the Army of the 12 Monkeys."  Also, the TV show spends a lot more time exploring the future world, in a way destroying some of the magic of Gilliam's original creation.

But then starting with the fourth episode, I decided to divorce the show from the movie, and all of a sudden, I found myself enjoying it a lot more.  I then realized the show's strength.  It's not trying to redo the movie.  It's creating something new with the same material.  If you decide to watch, I highly recommend throwing out everything you know about the movie, and just sit back and relax while this new show takes you back into time.

Better Call Saul on AMC (Mondays @10PM) - If you're a "Breaking Bad" fan, there's a high probability you'll love this show.  I caught the first two episodes this past week, and found it to be some of the funniest junk I've ever seen.

Jimmy McGill is just your everyday low experience lawyer trying to start his own practice, but along the way he hits up against the most annoying roadblocks.  He lives in a very small room in the back of a nail salon, where we see him moving furniture around just to get his squeaky bed out.  Even Mike from "Breaking Bad" makes an appearance as the parking lot attendant who repeatedly tells Jimmy he doesn't have enough validation stickers.

Getting desperate for cash, Jimmy decides to set up a situation where potential clients would choose him to represent them.  However, the situation goes terribly wrong with hilarious and frightening outcomes.  As of the end of the second episode, the situation has yet to come to a close.

I highly recommend this show, even if you haven't seen "Breaking Bad."  Unlike a TNT show, you can go online at and catch these episodes for free for the next four weeks, and no login is required.

That's all I have for now.  Looking ahead, I may check out the following shows:

Last Man on Earth (FOX - March 1)
Childhood's End (Syfy - coming soon)
Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norell (BBC-America - closer to summer)
Heroes Reboot (NBC - coming soon)

Monday, February 9, 2015

Review: Jupiter Ascending

Have you ever wanted to see Flash Gordon enter the Matrix?  Now may be your chance.

"Jupiter Ascending" is a fun ride with amazing visuals, awesome fight scenes, big music, and epic action.  However, this all comes at a price.  The plot is both confusing and amazingly thin.  So much so, that I would expect many to walk away from the theater unsatisfied.  If, on the other hand, you're looking for a no-brainer movie with action and eye candy, then you'll most likely love this movie.

The movie starts out very well as we witness the birth of Jupiter.  But then as soon as the title splash screen appears, everything goes to plaid.  We witness three alien immortals discussing ... something.  Then for the next thirty minutes, I struggled to figure out what the heck was going on.  At many times, it felt like I was watching the 1980 version of "Flash Gordon," only with up-to-date special effects and much less male chauvinism.  At other times, it felt like "Matrix Revolutions" with its epic scenes and very similar CGI.

When the movie was over, I sat there pondering, "What exactly got accomplished?" while listening to Michael Giacchino's epic operatic score full of big instrumentation that screamed, "You just watched a big movie.  You just watched a big movie."  Unfortunately, I had to fight the urge to laugh out loud.

It could have been the biggest movie to hit the screen in a long time, but the writing basically killed it.  Let me give an example.  Near the beginning of the movie, Jupiter wants to buy this expensive telescope.  Her cousin (?) comes up with this idea for her to sell some of her eggs for $15K.  She goes in for an operation, using a pseudonym, and the story progresses.  Seems like such a simple concept to understand, but believe it not, it wasn't until an hour into the movie before I fully understood what she was doing.

There was a lot of "let's make the audience figure out what's going on."  Sure, this technique worked in "The Matrix," but that's only because we saw it all through Neo's eyes.  Neo was the one in the dark.

But with "Jupiter," the technique fails miserably, mainly because the audience knows that Jupiter knows what's going on, and it's the audience alone that's in the dark.  Had the writers simply explained at the very beginning why she was going in for an operation, there would have been less confusion, and a lot more emotional connection with the characters.

Yes, with just a few simple tweaks of the plot and dialogue, this movie would have been outstanding. And to think at how much attention they paid to other details!

With that said, I think the visuals, action, and lack of boring parts make it worthy enough to catch in the theater.  I saw it in 2-D, but I wish I had gone with 3-D IMAX.  That would have been awesome.

Thursday, January 1, 2015

2015 Preview

Reading from the "7 Habits" over the past year or so, I'm learning how much of a scam New Year Resolutions are.  The following can easily happen:

#1) You miss the deadline to make resolutions, so you must wait another year.  Get ready for a crappy year.

#2) You do well in meeting your resolutions for a few weeks, and then you slip, and oh no!  Once you mess up, it's too late, and you must wait another year.  Again with the crappy year.

Rather, as "7 Habits" teaches, the best unit of time for planning is the week.  Whatever day works the best for you is the day to plan out the whole week.  Schedule appointments.  Plan activities that further your goals.

Instead of annual goals, you're supposed to set a mission statement, which encompasses your major goals in life.  Thus you don't have to wait till January 1 to get started.  You can start any day you want.

With all that said, I still like to look forward.  What do I want to accomplish this year?  I'd really like to finish getting "Justice" published.  I'd really like to get a magazine credit.  I'd like to start showing a profit, so I can show potential tax auditors that this isn't just a hobby.  I don't need an annual goal to accomplish these three tasks, but I'll just say: 2015 would be a great year if I could accomplish all three goals.

Good luck with your 2015.  Write well, and may you prosper in your art!