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Dell (Kevin Hart) is a recently paroled ex-convict. His teenage son and his wife do not respect him. He has not been a father or provider by a long shot. On his search for a job, he stumbles upon the opportunity to be a caretaker for the paraplegic billionaire Phil (Bryan Cranston). Even though he is not qualified whatsoever, Phil takes a liking to him and over time, the relationship changes both of them. The unlikely pair become friends.

The movie is based on a true story first told by the French film The Intouchables. The critics of The Upside are blasting it and comparing it to the supposedly much better The Intouchables. I have not seen that film, so I am not qualified to judge, but I can say that I enjoyed watching The Upside more than I expected. It’s a heartfelt comedy that lifts the human spirit.

I have a pet peeve about movie titles that don’t make sense to me. The Upside is one of those. I can’t figure out why they named it that. There must be some upside with this film.

Landline was released in 2017, but plays in Manhattan in the 1990s.

Two sisters are struggling with their own lives. Ali, the teenager, is fighting with coming of age troubles, boyfriends, drugs and growing up in the big city. The older one, Dana, is recently engaged but finds herself in lust with an ex-boyfriend and is trying to come to terms with her feelings. They discover that their father is having an affair and they try to figure it out without telling their mother.

This Woody-Allen-esque drama plays in Manhattan in the 1990s. You can tell because all the phone calls are done on landlines. No Internet, texting or smart phones. There is on old Mac computer that contains files that expose the dad. Why he would just leave those files on the family computer for all to see is strange and an apparent plot hole.

I don’t know why the movie is called Landline. The title has nothing to do with the story. I also don’t know why they staged this in the 90ies. It might have been more effective, and simpler to do, if it had played today.

It’s mildly entertaining, makes you think about family, love and dreams of youth that dissipate as we go through life.

Last Friday, during a trip to Austin, Texas, I had some extra time before flying out, so I visited the Blanton Museum of Art on the campus of the University of Texas.

After parking, I noticed I had a great view of the State Capitol Building, albeit from the back side, with some of the downtown Austin buildings visible behind it.

Here is the map of where I was standing when I took that picture, with the arrow showing my position and point of view:

The photograph above is heavily cropped. There was ugly construction everywhere. I could not find a better vantage point to take a picture. And since it was mid-eighties and very humid, I didn’t want to walk too far out of my way. This is what it really looked like:

A couple of weeks ago, on a trip to Oakland, California, I noticed the “Oakland Flatiron Building” – or at least that’s what I called it to myself. It’s actually called the Cathedral Building.

When I looked it up later, I learned that, due to its appearance, it’s also called the Wedding Cake Building. It was built in 1914 and was the first Gothic Revival style skyscraper west of the Mississippi River. See Wikipedia.

 

Some products simply were good enough decades ago and don’t need improvement. Yet, some smart designers keep trying to make them better – and making them worse in the process.

We have an iron at home that is such an example. If I gave it to you, you would not be able to turn it on without endless fiddling with it first. How could you make a simple household device so complicated that an “untrained” user cannot figure out how to turn it on?

I stay in hotels a lot, and therefore I get to try a lot of irons, different irons every time. I must say that more than half of the irons are poorly designed at best, and sometimes utterly annoying. Yesterday, I had to use this iron:

In the picture above you can see the dial under the handle that turns the iron on and sets the temperature. However, when the iron is in your right hand, it’s impossible to see what is marked on it,  and there is no reference mark. So you have to use your left hand to blindly turn the dial, turn it all the way to the stop, and hope you’re in the on position. To test that, you have to probe the surface with your hand, and if it is getting hot, you’re on. If it’s not, you’re off, and you have to turn the dial the other way.

The picture below shows my hand holding the iron. The space is so tight, even my fairly skinny engineer’s hand hardly fits in the opening.

The whole design is ludicrous.

Doesn’t somebody actually test these as prototypes before they mass-produce such utter junk? Ironing a single shirt with one of these points out numerous design flaws that frustrate millions of users in thousands of hotels every day.

And don’t even get me started about the spring-loaded power chord with the retract button that is supposed to pull the chord back into the unit – that never quite works properly after a few uses.

Irons should be locked down with simple, easily readable controls on top, clean, well-crafted handles, and a place to wrap the chord. Then we should stop trying to make them better. We’re not succeeding.

Today I went for dinner at the Mikado Ryotei restaurant in Austin, Texas. When I went to the bathroom, it gave me pause.

I stood there, hesitated for a while, and then picked the correct one. I could tell because there were urinals inside.

Whew!

Daytona Beach, Florida

Vons Supermarket: “Would you like to donate five dollars for people in need?”

Panda Express Chinese Diner: “Would you like to donate your change to Children’s Hospital?”

Carl’s Junior Fast Food Restaurant: “Would you like to donate a dollar to help veterans?”

My answer to each of them: “No.”

Not “No, Thank You.” Not “I have already donated.” Just “No.”

I have no problem with charity for people in need, for sick children, and for veterans. But I have a problem with retail organizations hustling money from their customers, who, in the majority of cases, cannot afford those donation and probably need help themselves. I have always said simply “No” not because I don’t have the money to give, but because I do not believe in the principles applied.

In the case of Vons, who are “people in need?” How do I know my five dollars go there? Who are they accountable to? Where do they determine who is in need, and how?

In each of those cases, they prey on the person in line being embarrassed about saying “No.” Others standing behind or next to them in line can hear the conversation. People will say “Yes” just to get past the embarrassing moment. The young man in front of me at Vons was with his girlfriend. They bought just a few things. He donated more money to “people in need” than his total purchase value, just because he didn’t want to look like a miser in front of his girlfriend.

Why does our healthcare system need to beg for money for the Children’s Hospital in restaurants? Can’t we have a system that pays adequately for healthcare for children?

And what about or veterans? I believe the government that sends our young men and women overseas to get maimed and emotionally crippled owes those people adequate and quality healthcare. We should not need to beg for money in fast food lines for our veterans. Our politicians talk about how fine our military is, and we honor our service men and women by thanking them when we see them at the airport. But when they come back with limbs missing or drug addicted, we discard them. And we can’t figure out how to pay for their healthcare. That is – to me – repulsive.

I resent that we resort to collecting money for their care from those that can least afford it – people eating in fast food places. Our president has spent over $100 million of taxpayer money on golf vacations in just two years, and we beg customers in Carl’s Junior for money for veterans!

Screwed up, we are.

Trisha is ready for entertainment. This is her control station on our couch.

A Brief History of Humankind

As the subtitle states, the book is a brief history of the human race. The Israeli author has a Ph.D. in history and lectures at the Hewbrew University in Jerusalem. He tells the story of humanity from a scientific and cultural viewpoint. The material was originally published in 2011 and updated in 2014. Some of the references to current events, like global warming for instance, are therefore already quite outdated, but the impact of that is very minor.

Unlike what we think of history books, Sapiens is a page-turner. The author’s viewpoint sometimes shocks and surprises us. Humans are apes that managed to become the apex predator of the planet.

Being scientifically oriented myself, and keenly interested in history to boot, there was not much material in Sapiens that I didn’t already know in a broad sense, but the level of detail and the sharp, keen observations that the author supplies made it very valuable.

I learned a lot about our history, and there are many subjects the author addressed that resulted in my taking notes for further study and reading. For me, it all makes sense, but I can see that for a Christian or a Muslim, or a technologist, some of the conclusions of the author may be surprising or even disturbing and shocking.

Many sapiens eat pork:

Pigs are among the most intelligent and inquisitive of mammals, second perhaps only to the great apes. Yet industrialised pig farms routinely confine nursing sows inside such small crates that they are literally unable to turn around (not to mention walk or forage). The sows are kept in these crates day and night for four weeks after giving birth. Their offspring are then taken away to be fattened up and the sows are impregnated with the next litter of piglets.

Harari, Yuval Noah. Sapiens (p. 342). Harper. Kindle Edition.

I read the book cover to cover, and I learned – mostly that I know very little. My rating key for books states: “Must read. Inspiring. Classic. Want to read again. I learned profound lessons. Just beautiful. I cried.” Obviously, I rate a book with four stars when it changes me in some way.

After reading Sapiens, I will never think about many topics quite the same again. I can’t “unread” this book. I read it, and now:

  • Christianity, Islam and all the other religions will never quite look the same to me.
  • I always believed animals are not different in kind from humans in any way. Animals feel, hope, love, lust, fear and mourn, just like we do.
  • We are destroying ourselves and our planet, and all the creatures on it (or most of them).
  • Our current Republican government is corrupt, criminal and repugnant.
  • Our species does not appear fit to survive.
  • We are at the cusp of turning into something quite different entirely. I call it the ultra-sapiens, in great contrast to divine. The ultra-sapiens will look at us sapiens like we sapiens look at ants. Get out the Raid and wipe them off the countertop.
  • We could do so much good, be so much better, but we don’t have the maturity to pull it off.

Sapiens changed the way I think, and I suspect it would change your way of thinking, too.


This is one of the most iconic images of the 20th century. It shows Buzz Aldrin on the moon with the American flag on July 20, 1969.

I was 12 years old then, old enough to think on my own and science-minded enough to sit up in the middle of the night (in Germany) in front of our TV at 3:56am local time when Armstrong made that famous first step onto the moon.

The movie Apollo 11 is a documentary of the moon landing, and as we are coming up on the 50th anniversary of this event, it is ever more significant. The entire movie is not narrated or filmed. It is entirely constructed of actual clippings, both video and audio, taken at the time, and put together in a coherent sequence that tells the awesome story in all its glory. There is a minimum of screen prompts, like “Day 3,” that keep the viewer oriented. Other than that, it’s all original material, and that makes the impact all the more powerful.

This is not a movie, but rather a documentary of humanity’s peaceful conquests, and it is told masterfully.

 

 

Now that I rated the movie, I have to add my own ruminations about the moon landings.

I am not sure exactly how all those people who were born after this, which is the majority of humanity, think about the moon landings. But I remember clearly reading science fiction in the 1960s when I was in awe of the immensity of the undertaking. I remember a world before humans reached another body.

50 years have now gone by. 77 percent of all people alive today were not alive when the first moon landing occurred. Another 12 percent of all people alive today were younger than age 12 at the time of the moon landing, and therefore probably do not have first-hand memories of the events themselves.

So a full 89 percent of the world’s population did not have the experience of sitting in front of the television that day, watching those grainy pictures from very far away.

I remember what I thought that day. I remember thinking that by the time I was “old” I’d be able to buy a ticket to take a vacation on the moon. Not in my wildest dreams did I think that by 1972, we’d stop going there, and by 2019, the United States is actually in a position where it does not have the technology to put a man into space, let alone onto the moon. I recognize that we’re on track to change that soon, with initiatives by SpaceX and Boeing for human-rated rockets underway and both within 12 months of realizing that goal.

Of the 12 men who ever walked on the moon, eight are now deceased. Only Buzz  Aldrin (age 88), David Scott (85), Charlie Duke (82) and Harrison Schmitt (82) are still alive as of today.

I would never have thought that a boy in South Africa (Elon Musk) who would not even be born for another two years after the summer of 1969 would be the one that would make it possible for the United States to launch humans into space in 2019, and who would have the vision to take them to the moon and Mars.

The collective will of our nation, and our species, to set goals beyond the next election cycle, has diminished and we are left at the whims of individual politicians with an outlook of a few years at a time. Real goals, like a space program that allows us to leave the planet, are achieved in decades of dedication and lifetimes of focus. Unless we figure that out soon, we might as well continue to ruin our planets and render it unlivable, with no way out.

Perhaps movies like Apollo 11 will inspire us to do more with our time than line our pockets and gratify our immediate urges and needs.

First we institute a massive tax cut for the rich and corporations. This balloons the deficit. Our deficit is higher than it ever was in history. The Republicans, who are supposedly the fiscally conservative party that blasted Obama for his deficits, have been awkwardly quiet about this.

The “Trump Economy” as we call it is artificially pumped up by the massive debt we’re accumulating to pay for the tax cuts. Our grandchildren will be paying for this.

We’re borrowing money, largely from China, to make up for the deficit.

Now we’re placing tariffs on Chinese goods, which American consumers pay for in the end. Our farmers are hurt in the process.

Let me get this straight:

We are borrowing money from China to pay our farmers not to sell their crops to China.

We have dilettantes running our country.

I walked to school a mile, in the snow, uphill, both ways.

And we also only had a rotary phone. But in our family, we didn’t get it until I was about 10 years old. Before that, if we had to make a phone call, we went to one of the few people in the village that had a phone and asked if we would use theirs. Obviously, you had to pretty much cut off one of your fingers before that happened.

Here are some American teenagers in 2019 who are asked to use a rotary phone:

On Saturday we traveled to Big Bear, California (a town up in the mountains) to watch our son Devin, at age 31, race the Spartan – The Beast. This is a 13.1 mile race with 30 obstacles and almost 6,000 feet of elevation gain on the course. Read all about it here.

Here is the course – photographed the banner at the beginning of the race.

It takes place at the Big Bear ski area, and some of the trails follow the slopes. We were able to see him leave at the starting line, then take the ski lift to the top of the mountain and wait for him there on stations 10, 14 and 15.

Here is champion before the race:

And here is his pit crew:

From left to right (the parental units): Norbert, Jack, Devin, Mary and Trisha.

Here is the starting lineup. Notice, to get into the starting area you have to climb over a wall.

The voice you hear is that of the announcer, getting the crowd ready.

They released the participants in batches of up to 250 people every 15 minutes. They carry chips that track their individual times. Devin was in the last batch for the day, and there were only a few participants left at that time. Other starting waves were packed with people.

Here is a view of the start.

Off they go, up the mountain.

After they left, we made our way to the ski lift and went to the very top. Here is a view of Big Bear Lake, and some of the racers below us:

Once on the top, in the background you can see one of my favorite mountains. This is the peak of San Gorgonio, at 11,503 feet (3,506 meters) the highest mountain in Southern California. I have been on its top many a time over the years, and I have loved being there every time.

The two of us bundled up and waiting in the cold at the top:

Then I waited for Devin at Station 10. It was good to know he was the one with the neon-green leggings. I could see him coming from a distance. I could tell from his pace that he was faster than most people.

At station 10 there is an 8-foot wall to climb over. Many people struggled with that wall, needed assistance up from fellow racers. Here is how Devin handled it:

After he dropped to the other side, I turned off the camera and ran around the wall, only to find him long gone, running up the hill. He was not waiting around for us spectators.

I was able to hike back up the mountain from 10 to 14, and Trisha and I waited for him there. It was freezing cold. The weather service had forecasted snow the next day. Good thing not today.

About 45 minutes later (see the map and the big loop on the left after station 10) he arrived at station 14, just as fresh and chipper as ever.

Station 10 had monkey bars to navigate. We watched many people struggle with these.

Judge for yourself on how Devin did on those. After he dropped off the monkey bars, he immediately ran away up the hill toward the next station, number 15. I went into a full sprint and ran up the hill on a side road, and I beat him to the top by just enough time to run over to the ropes and take this video:

After he dropped off he ran away. The picture below is the parting view.


We got back on the ski lift to make our way down into the valley. We had just enough time to go into the ski café, get a quick sandwich, before we needed to go back out and catch him at the finish. We ALMOST missed him. He was there as soon as we got out.

We were waiting for him at the mud bath pit, but missed him. This is what it looked like:

In the video below you can see him right after the mud bath (where they are completely in the water) making his way to the end. We missed the mud bath, so I have no video of it.

One of the last obstacles are the rings. Judge for yourself:

Here is Devin on the rings:

Then, finally, before the finish line, the barbed wire run.

I could hardly keep up with him taking the video.

Here is a pretty crappy sequence of him going through the finish line. I had to run around people to catch this, and my finger slipped over the lens a few times.

Victory!

Here he comes out with is medal.

The medal:

After this, he had to change into some dry clothes quickly as he shivered uncontrollably. He kept us busy trying to keep him warm. Note to pit crew for next time: Bring extra sweats, a towel, and warm accessories.

The next morning he found out about his statistics. He completed the race in 3:26:33 (hh:mm:ss).

In the open category, there were 3,995 participants. Devin came in number 2. That is incredible. Out of the open category for males between ages 30 and 34, there were 562 participants, and Devin came in number 1.

Incredible! Congratulations, Devin, from us all!

San Diego [click to enlarge]

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