Monday, December 11, 2017

I think my Nest thermostat just saved me a bunch of money and inconvenience this weekend.

Last year when I bought my house, one of the smarter decisions I made at the time was to buy a Nest brand smart home thermostat. Not only did I get pretty much the entirety of the cost back from Rocky Mountain Power through a rebate program (which I diligently filled in and followed up on), but the thermostat probably saved me the price of a new furnace by telling me I had a clogged air filter. How cool is that?

Here's the situation: Last month I'd changed the air filter in my furnace with one that had a really high Merv rating, because I have lots of allergies and I assumed that this would keep the air super clean (which it did). I buy the 4-inch thick filters instead of the 1-inch ones so that they last about five months before I need to change them again. This was the first time I'd bought an "allergen" filter and stuck it in there.

Well Friday night, I got a message from Nest on my iPhone saying that my thermostat was detecting that the furnace was really struggling. It said that it could only stay on for six minutes at a time before overheating and shutting down. The suggestion was to replace the air filter. At first, I didn't believe it so I went to the thermostat and had it run a diagnostic test (which is a thing that the Nest thermostat can do). The reason I was in disbelief was because the filter was only a little over a month old. It wasn't time to change it out. The test came back that there was definitely a problem with the air flow and the furnace was shutting down/struggling to produce heat.

So, I had two of the old brand of filters that had never caused me any problems sitting in shrink wrap. I went and replaced the filter, threw the allergen one in the garbage, and then I reran the test. The Nest confirmed that everything was checking out perfect and that the furnace was no longer struggling.

This was the first time that I'd seen the power of one of these Smart Home devices, which I had just taken for granted up until now as being "kind of neat." From everything that I understand of furnaces, if I had been oblivious to the fact that my furnace was struggling and just allowed it to go on and on like it was, dealing with the allergen filter which was restricting air flow over the coils, I could have burned out my furnace costing me a lot of money and inconvenience down the road. 

So yeah, I was pretty impressed by it and thought I'd tell you all about it.

Friday, December 8, 2017

I dislike how frills are stripped out of things to make them streamlined for faster and arguably better consumption. We should all stop doing that.

The Japanese national sport of sumo wrestling highlights something that I've felt for a long time about how Americans seem to approach everything. Before I get to this point, I should probably point out a little of how sumo wrestling is viewed in Japan so I can better explain what I'm talking about.

In Japan, sumo wrestling has been practiced for centuries, and it is heavily steeped in traditional culture. In one of the country's founding myths, a god by the name of Take-Mikazuchi won a critical sumo match against his opponent. There are currently around twenty-six (give or take) very accomplished wrestlers in Japan. I think ten (or so) are non-Japanese (seven of which are Mongolian). And the last time a Japanese wrestler won one of the six annual grand sumo tournaments was 2006 (disclaimer: I haven't really followed up on anything in the last few years).

Dominance of foreigners aside, there has been some discussion over the rituals that are involved in Japan's national sport (many of which are surprising to people that watch sumo wrestling in America--and I'm going to touch on this a little bit later in this post). Aficionados of the sport really like the rituals. However, a lot of foreigners think that it just complicates a sport that needs to be streamlined and down to business. Here are a few of the things that take place when you watch a match in Japan:

1) Sumo is a religious ritual and the wrestlers throw salt before a match to purify the ring (due to Shinto tradition). Every newly promoted Yokozuna (the highest rank in sumo) performs his first ring-entering ceremony at the Meiji Shrine in Tokyo. The ring is considered a holy place.

2) The wrestlers engage in psychic battles. The rules say that the match doesn't start until both wrestlers have placed both hands on the ground at the same time. Wrestler's purposely pretend to put their hands down and get back up again (on purpose) to screw with the other guy's head.

3) Sumo referees wear traditional clothing, and as they progress up the ranks, they earn honorific names. They are called "gyoji" and they carry a sword called a tanto. The significance of the sword is to show that the gyoji understands the seriousness of his decisions. In the past, he was expected to commit ritual suicide by disembowelment if he made a bad decision.

And this leads me to my point: when I watch sumo in America, it's all very business-like and boring because Americans have gotten rid of all the rituals and streamlined the sport (like they have with everything else). Why is our culture so obsessed with seeing something as its most basic truth? Let me shift the topic just a little bit so as to highlight this "paring down" to other areas of our lives.
My copy of "American Gods" has some fantastic illustrations (shown above)
I recently spent some extra money acquiring some gorgeous hard-bound books with fancy covers and illustrations. One of them was a copy of Neil Gaiman's American Gods, which I reviewed in this post HERE some time ago. Back in 2011, I read it as an ebook. And you know...showing someone a book on an electronic reader is just not the same as having a physical copy. I love the idea of pulling a book down from a shelf and turning pages and showing someone this beautiful novel. The reason I purchased so many ebooks over the years was that I always needed to move to a new apartment, and I didn't want to haul around a bunch of weight or go to the trouble of finding a place to put all that stuff. It was just better to forego all that inconvenience for one tidy electronic file.

But now that I own a house, I look back on those decisions with a bit of regret. I think we've all gotten away from something in just about everything we do. The "It doesn't matter what it looks like, I just want the content," has a purpose I suppose, but a life with things that has no "frills" makes me feel empty. And as I talk with more and more people, I think there's a pervasive emptiness in our American culture that people are all aware of, yet no one can seem to put their finger on it. That is...I run into a lot of people that feel empty of something every day.

Why are so many of us only concerned about what a thing is in its absolute truest form instead of how it is properly presented to the world?

Does no one know how to appreciate art anymore? Does no one understand the importance of nuance to soften hard let a thing be more than just its absolute basic truth in order to take into account how it is perceived from many different viewpoints?

I hear phrases every day that sound like this:

"I don't have time for all that. Just give me the highlights."

"Can you summarize it for me?"

"I don't care what it looks like. Just show me how to use it."

"This is nothing more or less than a recognition of reality."

"I prefer texting because it gets rid of small talk."

"Why do I need to read the book when I can watch the movie? Bam...whole season of A Handmaid's Tale done in two days, and I get to share the experience with someone."

"Why does anyone care if I abbreviate it 'Xmas'? It's the same thing."

I'll be honest. Stripping things whether they are books, sports, political talking points, art, or holidays down to the exact nature of what they are really fatigues me. Yes, a book is just words so who cares how the words are downloaded into your brain, right? An audio book should be just as good as anything, right? But it's not the same thing. I'm not sure how I can even explain this point effectively to someone that just doesn't get it.

I dislike how rituals, traditions, or for lack of a better word, "frills," are stripped out of things to make them streamlined for faster (and arguably better) consumption. In fact, maybe all of us would benefit as a society if we took the time to slow things down. Lets fill all our conversations up with small talk again. Let's stop using abbreviations in text communication. Let's stop texting as much. And let's buy pretty things because they are pretty and not because of their functions.

Or maybe I'm just a little crazy and old-fashioned and seeing all the things wrong with the world.

Wednesday, December 6, 2017

Today's Insecure Writer post ponders what would you do differently in 2017?

Today is Wednesday, December 6th, and that means that it's time for the Insecure Writer's Support Group. This monthly blog fest has a sign up sheet located HERE.

The December question is:

As you look back on 2017, with all its successes/failures, if you could backtrack, what would you do differently?

I'm not sure I really had many successes or failures this year. Everything seemed to go pretty much as planned, and the plans I made certainly arose out of only one option (I know that sounds weird but my life has been very directional this year). It would be like asking, "if you are going up a path and there are no branches off the path...other than walk the path to get closer to your goal, what would you do differently?" Hmm. I guess nothing. I'd keep plodding along at the path I'm on. One step at a time, a little closer to the goal with each step, etc. Maybe I would have bought a new battery for my car a little sooner than having it just go dead in the grocery store parking lot. That would have been nice, but it would also preclude that I knew my battery was going to die (which I didn't). Maybe I'd have left a little sooner after the Eclipse in August to try and get ahead of the traffic instead of it taking nine hours to drive a trip that normally took 3.5 hours. Maybe I'd try harder to weed the old friendship garden (I got lots of weeds growing).

Eh...overall I'm satisfied with the choices I made. It's not like I have much influence on anything "Big" in this world, so while the rest of it goes to hell maybe I'll just exist in my comfy bubble of existence.

Monday, December 4, 2017

All the Star Wars stories can trace a thread back to the Skywalkers in one way or another.

I don't know why people don't understand that Star Wars is all about the Skywalkers. So if you are reading this post and thinking...wait a minute...there are other stories there. What about Rogue One? True, you can have an infinite amount of plots in this universe that George Lucas created. However, it's like that silly game "seven degrees of Kevin Bacon" that you may (or may not) have heard of. Everything can be traced back to the Skywalkers in some way. That's just the way it is. The latest outrage online is that Poe Dameron couldn't just be a kick ass pilot for the resistance.

I didn't know this of course until I started mining message boards for the upcoming Star Wars movie. But it makes sense to me that this is a thing: that Poe is connected to Luke thru his mother, who went adventuring with Luke to find a tree. So yeah, Poe Dameron's mom knows Luke Skywalker and spent considerable time around him.

So I guess I'm here to say that people who bitch about Star Wars being too much about the Skywalkers are whining in the same way as someone saying, "Why are all these Avenger movies only about the Avengers?" I haven't seen the upcoming film yet (of course) but I can make some guesses:

1) Rey's heritage will somehow intertwine with the Skywalkers.
2) Snoke will somehow be tied into the Skywalkers in some weird way.

Repeat after me: Out of all these worlds and all these billions of people, the only people who actually matter (and who actually create major change) come from the Skywalker family for whatever reason. If this upsets you, then may I suggest the Orville? It has nothing to do with the Skywalker family and takes place in space.

This public service message has been brought to you by the Force, which (I hope) is with you...always.

Friday, December 1, 2017

Crisis on Earth X was great but it really showed why non-powered superheroes playing alongside powered ones strains suspension of disbelief to uncomfortable levels.

There are spoilers in this post.

The CW's Crisis on Earth X is a fine example of a superhero team-up. However, Crisis on Earth X (all the CW show's crossing over) did showcase how useless people with no powers really are in a physical confrontation with people who can fly, move, faster than sound, freeze objects at a distance, turn to steel, and the list goes on and on. It was hilarious when Flash and Supergirl arrived and then had to wait for Oliver Queen (Arrow) to show up on his motorcycle. As he got off he said, "A reminder: Superspeed...I don't have it."

I've come to this conclusion: live action realization of non-powered heroes next to powered ones strains suspension of disbelief to uncomfortable levels. Oliver (Arrow) is no more help at holding up a building than the Batman is trying to fight non-human foes. Black Canary had to forget she had a superpowered cry so a Nazi Arrow could beat Team Arrow. Additionally, there should never be a situation in which Sara Lance (White Canary) could ever be in a fist fight with Supergirl for this reason: Supergirl punches her dead and moves on.

Marvel does it so much better when it comes to this kind of thing except when it comes to Black Widow and Hawkeye. Tony Stark has incredible technology (as does Falcon) which kind of gives them an edge. But Black Widow and Hawkeye should just be dead.

Don't get me wrong. I love these characters. I'm just really aware that I need to "suspend disbelief" when the non-powered superheroes are on screen. They need "plot armor" really bad, and I need to enjoy fiction for what it is.

I also loved Crisis on Earth X. Here are highlights:

1) Iris and Felicity kicked some Nazi asses.

2) The wedding fight was amazing.

3) Seeing Kara sing at the wedding was incredible. She has such a wonderful voice.

4) The story definitely passed the Bechdel test.

5) The death of Stein. This was devastating not just to the Legends and his family, but to all of Team Flash because they've been building toward this end for years with shared history and crossovers. His death was a perfect example of why Crisis on Earth X worked so well.

Wednesday, November 29, 2017

I expect Altered Carbon on Netflix to be dark and shocking just like Richard K. Morgan's books.

I saw on super science fiction blog io9 yesterday that Richard K. Morgan's book, Altered Carbon, is being turned into a Blade Runner-esque ten episode season for Netflix. The above image comes from one that was shared on Reddit, and it looks awesome. From what all the experts are saying, Netflix appears to be spending a ton of money on it too.

When I saw the title, I was like...Richard Morgan...why does that sound familiar? And then I realized that I read a book about a year ago by him called The Steel Remains. It was a dark epic fantasy book with a gay main character that I was planning on exploring with the sequels. It turned out that I got distracted by another book series featuring characters who were more compelling. It doesn't mean that I won't return to the Steel Remains universe (or that subsequent books will flesh the character of Ringil out even better), because I definitely will, especially now that the author is becoming well-known. Fame does make me want to read an author's stuff even more than I do now. The reason? I know that others will too, and then we can have really awesome "water cooler" type conversations with each other at work or in a round of drinks at the restaurant or wherever social situations spring up.

So what did I take away from the one book written by Richard Morgan that I might expect from Altered Carbon (without having read any of its pages)? Well, his work is very violent, with humans being hacked apart, splattered, gutted, etc. It's also heavy on sex and sleaze and it's very graphic with that stuff (yes I liked it). In the age of blood and boobs on television, anything is possible. A fantasy is what it is, and Richard K. Morgan just tends to walk on the dark side of things with a lot of morally gray if not downright wrong stuff happening. Who knows, Altered Carbon may end up making GoT look like Sesame Street. I'm so excited.

Monday, November 27, 2017

Pixar's Coco is one of the most beautiful movies I have ever seen and makes me wish I had a larger family.

This Sunday, I saw Pixar's Coco. I've been in a mood for a movie like this, probably because this week is the one year anniversary of my mother's death. I think about my mom all the time. It comes in little snippets of things that remind me of her. The latest happened while I was watching "Boss Baby" with my friend Jake, and there's a scene in it in which the boy loses his training wheels and rides a bike for real. It reminded me of my mother, who taught me how to ride a bike, and convinced me (despite being afraid) that if she could do it, then I could do it too. That's the kind of person she was. And that's what I saw in Pixar's Coco.

I knew next to nothing about Dia de los Muertos, the Mexican Holiday on which the movie centers itself. The story is about the importance of memory, and why it is important to remember people once they are gone. If anything, this is the nature of any true immortality that any of us can ever hope for. And it's remarkable how well Pixar puts down the emotional layers, slowly building the story of a boy who desperately wants to play music and eventually runs away from his family because he doesn't want them squashing his dreams any longer. In time, he comes to understand that all is not as it seems, and uncovers a powerful and very moving fact about his ancestor that had me shedding tears in the finale of the film. Pixar (if anything) knows how to put together a masterpiece that manages to be both joyful and sorrowful at the same time.

Coco is one of the most beautiful movies I have ever seen. The sheer amount of colors found in the movie combined with gorgeous scenery, Mexican culture, and a terrific story, made Coco a movie that I will long remember. It had terrific spirit animals, fantastic music, a hairless dog that was really cute, and the movie was able to look at the darkest parts of humanity while keeping an eye for grace and justice. In the end, I just wished one thing: that I had a larger family. I suppose it's that sentiment that touched my heart the most.

From everything I've read about the film, it took six years to bring this project to the screen, because filmmakers were trying to find a story that felt worthy to be in the world. And I suppose that dedication paid off, because it's now the biggest film in Mexican history, and the number one film in the world. This kind of success is its due, for it couldn't have happened to a more deserving movie.