Being a CFO and other topics

Not just finance, hobbies too ….

Category: General Page 2 of 3

Airplane movie review – Creed

One unfortunate part of my job is the fact that I am on planes a lot. Not for short flights, for long ones. I have the habit of watching movies when they come out if I am interested, so normally there is not many movies available on the plane that I want to see, so instead I listen to books or read comics or work or write a blog entry or two.

This flight was a little different. I had missed Creed when it came out and had wanted to see it. So when I looked at “recent hits” on the screen, preparing to be disappointed again, I was happy to see that Creed was available.

When I first heard about the film I was somewhat taken aback. I thought that the sixth film in the series, Rocky Balboa had pretty much summed up the character and there was no where else to go. He was done as a fighter and he had finally put Adrian behind him. Loved but now open to other possibilities. So a “reboot” didn’t make that much sense to me. Sylvester Stallone is far to old to play a fighter and his story had seemed to have ended in a good way.

Creed is the story Adonis Johnson, an illegitimate son of Apollo Creed, Rocky’s opponent in the first two Rocky films and who was killed by Ivan Drago in Rocky 4. Adonis starts the movie in some sort of juvenile detention system and he is fighting against a larger kid there. Mary Ann Creed, Apollo’s widow, comes to the institution and takes him in. The next you see of Adonis is him fighting and winning in Mexico and then going to his financial institution job. He decides he wants to be a fighter and quits his job even though he just got a promotion. His mother (they live in some sort of large house or mansion) does not agree with that choice and does not want him to fight and risk his life like his father did. Adonis tries to get accepted at Delphi Gym, the local high end gym with great boxers and connections to his father but he is rejected. He decides to go to the East Coast and find Rocky to get him to help. Up to that point, Adonis claims that he is entirely self taught (15-0 in Mexico).

The rest of the movie is a typical boxing movie, especially ones after Rocky. Donnie (Adonis) finds a love interest, a singer-song writer who lives in his building. He keeps trying and trying to get Rocky to train him. Rocky says no but after a scene where he visits the graves of Adrian and Paulie, he changes his mind and starts to train Adonis. After some training, Adonis gets challenged by a local up and coming boxer. Rocky does not think he is ready but Adonis wants the fight and Rocky starts to train him full time with full intensity, including bringing in an experienced fight team.

The story rolls along with a few twists and turns, Rocky is sick, trouble in the love relationship, and a challenge by the reigning champ who wants a fight because it is now known that Donnie is Apollo’s son. It ends with the big fight (which follows the first Rocky fight in many ways) and then Rocky and Adonis climbing the library steps in Philadelphia and looking down over the city.

As a boxing film, it is engaging. The formula of train and then get your lucky break where you have to dig deep and find a way to win is old but still works well. The boxing scenes are well staged. There are more and more brutal punches than I ever see in real fights, but they are exciting and the rounds are obviously condensed to highlights so the extra energetic fighting is not too jarring. Rocky turns out to be a pretty savvy cornerman and gives good advice to Donnie. I thought that Stallone turned in an excellent performance and deserved the recognition he received in terms of award nominations. Maybe he did a better job in Rocky Balboa and was over looked, but he does well in Creed.

I could end the review here and just say that it is an excellent plane movie. Engaging and simple story that moves along well enough and ends with a nice emotional payoff. However, there are a few things that did not quite work for me. The first is the background story of Adonis. He has a big emotional issue over his father who died before he was even born and he appears to have had a hard time up to whenever the scene in the institution is, but he looks very young then and obviously had a good upbringing and loving relationship with Apollo’s wife becoming his mother. There is not really any grist for the mill for motivation there, so later when Rocky is telling him to channel all his frustration from the past, I didn’t get how he had anything to draw on.

The second is the physical build of the actor (Michael B. Jordon). He had worked with the director in a previous film, Fruitvale Station, but he seems too small to be credible as a light heavyweight. He looks well sculpted enough, but is very thin and the other fighters look much bigger than him. Finally, the style he is fighting with is a very Rocky style where he absorbs punishment and just does not go down, but it doesn’t fit the actual character there in the movie. It is not too bad, but it was a little distracting to me. The love interest also seemed a little superficial.

Finally, Rocky seems to have taken a big step back after the last film. His son moved away and doesn’t seem to have that close a relationship with him. Paulie is dead. He is once again visiting Adrian’s grave and no love interest or relationships from the past films. Almost like Rocky Balboa never happened. Rocky is definitely the supporting character here, but I grew up watching those films and it makes you wonder.

So the movie is good and I recommend it. The final scene in the steps would be a good send off for the Rocky character. Creed sets the stage for maybe a new film series but one that does not really need Rocky in it. I won’t give stars as I have no real benchmark, but is is not the greatest Rocky movie but it is solidly in the middle compared to the previous 6 and that is good enough.

Creed (Blu-ray + DVD + Digital HD Ultraviolet Combo Pack)

Book review – Robert A. Heinlein’s Starship Troopers

As always, my Sunday book review is presented as a suggestion just before you are going on a trip with a link at the bottom to the kindle version so you can download it right before leaving on your trip. I am picking interesting and easier reads to help distract and entertain, not meatier tomes.

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This week’s book is a SF classic and Hugo award winning**, Starship Troopers by Robert A. Heinlein. The book is a very straightforward story about the creation of first a soldier and then an officer. We meet the soldier, Juan “Johnnie” Rico, in the midst of a raid on an enemy called “Skinnies” who are allies of the Arachnids of Klendathu who are at war with the the Terran Federation. The. First part of the book is a simple and action filled account of Johnnie conducting his raid as part of a unit of Mobile Infantry that use suits of futuristic body armor to augment their abilities to fight. The raid is meant to smash and terrorize the Skinnies in the hopes that they would abandon their alliance with the Bugs (as the Arachnids of Kendathu are called in the book).

The next two sections of the book are of Johnnie in high school, and in particular with his History and Moral Philosophy course, taught by retired Lt. Colonel Dubois and boot camp. That particular course in HS is important in the book and there is a theme of taking responsibility throughout the book. The discussions with Lt. Colonel Dubois are the main way that the philosophy of the Terran Federation is explained, not only in the chapter when he is in high school, but in flashbacks during the rest of the book. When I read this book as a teenager, the discussions had a big impact on me. As an adult, I can tell that many of the things discussed were somewhat set up as a straw man with the hero knocking down the straw man, but even today it makes me think. The high school section ends with Johnnie joining up for Federal Service and falling out with his father.

I do not want to spoil the whole book in this short review, but the pattern is similar to many other military fiction books with book camp preparing Johnnie for war and then his war experiences showing just how unprepared he was. He eventually becomes an officer and there is a good combat scene at the end of his training with several returning characters.

The book was first published as a serial and then as a novel in late 1959, and many of the foundation technologies that as discussed in the book are extrapolated from that time. For a book of that time, there are a lot of social advancements that happen without any real comment. Johnnie’s real name is Juan and he is a Filipino, but there is no mention or reaction to him not being white in the book. Although there are no women in the book’s Mobile Infantry (the film adaptation does have this), women also sign up and serve in active combat on the ships that transport the Mobile Infantry and ships do get blown up pretty often, so women in the story are dying in combat as well. Again, there is nothing special about this in the book.

The society Johhnie lives in is certainly militaristic. You cannot vote or hold public office unless you serve your Federal Service which is military service. There is a strong theme of appreciation for the common foot soldier, and Lt. Colonel Dubuis knocks down several anti-war straw men during his lectures. However, I do not feel the book glorifies war. Johnnie suffers person loss from it and the Federation has at least one major defeat. The role of the common soldier is held up, but more because they are putting their lives in harms way to protect others than anything else.

Heinlein is an excellent writer. He is quite skilled in writing dialog. Even the real technology bloopers he extrapolates are written well. The action scenes move along well and the fighting technology of the Mobile Infantry suits is well thought out and even amusing every once and a while.

There are few books I have enjoyed more than Starship Troopers and my youngest daughter recently read it and was fascinated by it as well.

** Hugo award is an annual award chosen by paid members of a large SF convention called Worldcon. I have never read a novel that won the award that was poor, but they certainly have picked books that compare unfavorably against other books with the passage of time and more critical thought.

Starship Troopers

The movie

There was a movie version of the book made. They do not have the powered fighting suits, but otherwise I have always thought that they did a good job with capturing a lot of the story and the society in which Johnnie Rico lived.

Starship Troopers (+ BD Live) [Blu-ray]

 

Book review – Brandon Sanderson’s the Reckoners

As always on my Sunday review, these are books I recommend if you are about to go on a trip and are at the airport want to download something to read. I have tried to pick books that are entertaining and will help to pass the time, and all are books I have read myself.

This week, I am doing a mini-review of the Reckoners trilogy by Brandon Sanderson. These books are actually targeted at the young adult (YA) market, but the story and characters are interesting enough that I think that the YA target doesn’t detract from their appeal. Just be prepared for no swearing and where the lead character kissing one of the woman characters is a very big deal. At least if you like these books you can pass them onto your kids and not be concerned about what is in the books.

I actually prefer his Mistborn/Well of Ascension series more, but the Reckoners is less involved and very entertaining to read. The series is set in an alternate version of our world where an unexplained explosion in the sky which came to be called Calamity gave some people super powers. These people are called Epics. Unfortunately, using the superpowers causes emotional changes and a form of madness where they become amoral tyrants.

David Charleston, the main character, sees his dad shot down in front of him in a bank by a very powerful epic called Steelheart. The explosion in space that created the Epics happened when he was 6 years old and his father was killed when he was 8. Steelheart is one of the most powerful Epics (a High Epic) and rules Chicago. He is able to transmute other materials to steel and he is invulnerable. Most of the top Epics are immune to any regular way to kill them. All Epics have a vulnerability that shuts down their powers. The story really starts with David as a teenager burning with the desire to get his revenge on Steelheart. A shadowy group called The Reckonors hunts and kills Epics and David forces them to let them join them because he knows a secret about Steelheart. When his father was killed, David saw Steelheart bleed.

That is the basic set-up. The world is a dystopia with the calamity explosion causing a permanent twilight and with the super powered Epics being tyrants all over the world with the basic governments all shut down and the USA now being the Fractured States. David wants to kill Steelheart in revenge and the Reckoners want Steelheart dead too. The action ramps up quickly and the small band of heroes goes toe to toe with powerful Epics. There is teenage romance, drama, misunderstandings and heroism. Secrets of the world slowly get revealed. Cliffhangers and heartbreak follow.

The books are comic book action in written form. There is some character development, but I would call it more plot development that changes the characters. The story is fun and lots of twists and turns happen throughout the books that keep you locked in and interested. The books are very enjoyable and I stayed up too late finishing them. I actually listened to them via Audible.com instead of reading them, but I ended up buying them in book form because my youngest daughter (13 years old) loved them and wanted to read them faster than just listening to them.

If you want a fun read and like a good mystery that is revealed, I highly recommend trying the Reckoners series.

(And for people who have been reading SF for a long time, yes, the notional origin and then people gaining powers is similar to the Wildcards series.)

Steelheart (Reckoners Book 1)

Firefight (Reckoners Book 2)

Calamity (The Reckoners)

Reading Comic Books the modern way

With the recent success of super hero movies and TV programs, especially the Marvel Universe movies, liking comic books is solidly back in the mainstream. That is probably a little bit of an exaggeration as comic books have been widely popular for decades and decades. They are about the purest example of popular fiction out there and for a very long time the comics code authority kept them no worse than PG rated and a G rating was probably closer to the truth except for the violence.
What I think happened is that the mass market appeal dropped in the 1980’s and they started appealing to the collector crowd and not so much to the regular kid. Newsstand sales became much less important and specialty comic book sales became more important. There were still plenty of Saturday morning cartoons and I don’t think there ever was a period without at least a TV show that was super hero based in some way, but the comics themselves moved solidly up in printing quality and cost and moved away from dime sales to younger kids.
So there was a whole portion of the nerd population that was into comic books when the average person wasn’t. The late 1970’s and the 1980’s was my period of reading comics in a more classic way. I went to the comic store weekly and bought what I had allocated from my allowance. I quickly learned to buy a bag and a cardboard insert and I carefully read and saved my comics. I think I was a very typical cross-section of the group that would like them. I was playing D&D, reading SF and Fantasy, had just started programming on my high school’s Apple ][+ computers, and I was reading comic books. At the time, I was a big Marvel fan, and in particular, the X-Men and any comics associated with them. I also liked The New Teen Titans a lot and read the occasional Batman issue.
By the time I got to my last year of University, I had a pretty decent sized if narrow collection and I had some bills I needed to pay. There was a large comics book dealing in Montreal (called 1000000 Comix or something similar) that advertised in the comics themselves and I took my collection out to the West Island and sold it to them. That trip was important to me in a few ways. The first is that I was able to negotiate better than average dealer buy prices for my comics. The second is that I was actually at their warehouse, and I got a first hand chance to see just how big an industry comic collecting was. The owner had well over 1,000,000 comics there. I was able to find an interview of the owner from back in 1986 on Youtube: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7j03FeFuZkg
After I sold off my collection, I occasionally would buy and read a comic, but I was travelling and moving a lot after college and hauling around comics just didn’t seem like the best use of my time and space. I missed reading them, but they were not very convenient when on planes and packing suitcases as they were guaranteed to be ruined. The Batman movies came out, and that rekindled some interest in comics. I still had the same problem, though. Too many moves, too easy to damage the comics when on planes or in hotels. Plus, for the time it takes to read a comic, they take up a fair amount of room and add too much weight to your luggage. I had pretty much resigned myself to reading only the occasional “blockbuster” series that came out in graphic novel status, until maybe 5 years ago I found a new way to buy and read comic books called Comixology. Comixology not only had real comic books from Marvel and DC in ebook form, they had a very good reader for my iPad. At that time, you could even buy the comics directly from your iPad (today you need to visit their website).
Comixology developed a very good method to read comics on a smartphone screen or on an iPad called Guided View. Basically, they give you the choice of reading the whole page on one screen similar to how it would look on the actual comic book page or by naturally zooming in panel by panel (even word balloon by word balloon) . On top of that, they had regular sales of back issues for 99 cents each.
I now had a way to buy comics and could buy them anywhere I had an internet connection and my storage worries were solved. What followed over the last 5 or so years was an explosion of me buying comics, both new issues and catching up on back issues. I now have over 5,000 comics in ebook form and new comics Wednesday is a day I look forward to again. Comixology carries the comics from many publishers, not just DC and Marvel and their back issue library keeps growing and growing.
If you used to like reading comics when you were younger, or even if you never did, I suggest that you give it a try. The maturity level of comic books writing and the art has greatly increased compared to the time before the 1980s. The comic code authority is gone, but the mainstream comics are still owned by major media companies (Disney for Marvel and Time Warner for DC) so they still are tame enough. Many titles are solidly in the PG range, but only smaller publishers make comics that would be R rated.
I had dropped out of reading comics right when many of the smaller, independent publishers were springing up and starting to gain market share. A good example is Image Comics that publishes The Walking Dead, the source for the popular TV series. Image was founded in 1982 by several artists to try and keep ownership and copyright of their creative work. Another example is Mirage Studios which published Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. I actually started reading TMNT when it first came out, but I think it was the only independent comic I did read back then. Comixology opened up those comics publishers to me and I was able to greatly expand my comic book reading horizon.
The Comixology app on a tablet makes it very easy to read and enjoy the comics. You can drop in and out of guided view if you want to see how the comics were originally laid out on the page. The artwork looks very good and you can carry many comics on your device with all the books available on the server if you want them. I was a little worried that maybe they might go bankrupt and I would lose access to them, but then they were bought by Amazon.com and I am a lot less worried today.
I could go on for quite a while describing which series I like (the main character/series I buy is Batman but I buy quite a few others regularly) but I think it is better that you try it yourself if you want to take a look. You can download the app for iOS or Android tablets or read the comics right on your computer screen if you want to.
www.comixology.com
If you used to read comics when you were younger and now are coming back to them, I should warn you that DC and Marvel have had several events where they have blown up and reset their universes. For example, as of this writing Batman is Commissioner Gordon, not Bruce Wayne and Thor is a woman. They also have taken a jump to much more of a PG rating and there are plenty of publishers that go past that. Comics have always been a place that pushed the boundaries of social acceptance, and this is even more the case today. The X-Men have featured bigotry and the effects on the mutants since their very first issues, and the comic has carried on that tradition to the comics today. A good example is homosexuality. There are many openly gay characters in the mainstream comics today (Midnighter by DC features a gay main character). Someone wrote a letter to Marvel a few years back complaining about a gay couple in the X-Men comics. Marvel responded by having them get married and that was on the cover and the main story that issue. I don’t think anyone should get offended by such stories, but the language and open nudity and sex scenes in some titles from the independent publishers might not be appropriate for younger readers. I even have to be careful on planes from time to time in case something is too explicit.
I have had to slow down my buying a little as I have a few too many back issues to catch up on, but maybe I’ll be sitting next to someone reading this one day in the future and then I’ll know that my blog helped someone else become a fan or rediscover their fandom.

Marvel Encyclopedia

The DC Comics Encyclopedia, Updated and Expanded Edition

In case you want a preview of some upcoming movies:

Captain American vs. Iron Man
Civil War

Batman vs. Superman
Batman: The Dark Knight Returns

Infinity Gauntlet
Infinity Gauntlet

Book Reviews – Larry Correia’s Grimnoir series

As a reminder, my Sunday book reviews are with the idea that you are in the airport and about to leave on a trip and need something to keep you entertained or informed while travelling.  I link to Kindle versions (could just as easily be Nook or whatever is popular in your home country) so you can just buy and download them if you decided to give them a try.  I prefer not to travel with paper copies of books if I can avoid it for weight and clutter reasons.

Larry Correia is famous for his Monster Hunter International series (and political cause reasons that have nothing to do with enjoying his books).  I enjoy the Monster Hunter series, but I actually prefer the Grimnoir series instead.

These books are set in a fictional period after WWI.  The world is essentially a derivative of our world, except that an event in the past triggered the ability for some humans to use magic.  Exactly what the source of magic is for the world is a mystery at the start of the series and it is slowly revealed through the trilogy.

The series pits a secret society called Grimnoir that tries to stop and fight against improper use of magic.  The main foe in the series is the Prime Minister of Imperial Japan and his agents.  The Japanese have a more advanced understanding of how to use runes to augment the innate magic of their agents and they are more technologically and magically advanced in their weapons of war.

WWI was ended through the use of ‘Tesla” beam weapons which for all intents and purposes can be thought of as being a nuclear death ray.  So there is somewhat of a standoff between imperial Japan and the rest of the world powers because of fear that the Tesla weapons will be used again.  They were used to end WWI and the devastation is still scarring Europe.

Although the point of view switches between several more characters, then two main characters are “Heavy” Jake Sullivan and Faye Vierra.  Jake is a hard boiled P.I. in full noir tradition.  Jake is a very interesting character in that he is a physically large character, and his magical ability (localized gravity control to make things heavier or lighter) typically goes with slower thinking people but not true for him as he is as smart as he is large.  Although the cliché of the hard boiled detective with an unbreakable code of honor is the foundation for his role in the books, he becomes more complex as the books continue.

Faye is a little bit of a Mary Sue character as her abilities grow and evolve as the series goes on as needed by the plot.  Overall the magic system in the series is reasonably consistent, but the heroes are able to break previously established rules and their powers scale higher as the series progresses.

Mr. Correia is also a gun enthusiast and occasionally the narration gets slightly derailed as he details out the latest hardware one of the characters is using.  This is nowhere near as constant as happens in his Monster Hunter International series, but it is a little distracting when it does happen.

With the above caveats in mind, this series is just about epitomizes what is needed to meet “entertain you on a flight”.  The action is pretty much non-stop, well written and fun.  The characters are not exactly multidimensional, but they are fun and easy to identify and they certainly do move the story along.  The villains are interesting and have their own motivations that are not “be pure evil”.  The source of the magic is the world is slowly revealed and opens up the final quest in the book.  The ending is satisfying and I stayed up late a few times to finish the book that I had started.

I give the series a very good rating for pure entertainment value and I think pretty anyone looking for a fun read will enjoy it.

I originally “read” the books by listening via Audible.com and I found the narration good and entertaining.

 

Hard Magic – Book 1

Hard Magic – Kindle version

Spellbound – Book 2

Spellbound – Kindle version

Warbound – Book 3

Warbound – Kindle version

 

Pressing Words – How I started my blog

This blog entry is going to be self-referential, because it is about what I did to get this site up and running and what I discovered along the way.  I am brand new to this and I have never done most of the things I am going today, so all of it is new to me.  I did have a website on Geocities ages and ages ago, plus something hosted by Comcast well over a decade ago.  The only real HTML I had ever done was in notepad, and I cannot say I was all that skilled, but I did learn the tagging system at least.

A few years ago I received some form of Black Friday advertisement from GoDaddy.com for what was essentially a free domain for a year (you needed to pay some small ICAN fee, but otherwise no real cost).  I reserved mgpotter.com for no reason other than vanity.  It is my name, after all.  I had some vague idea of using it for something, but I was pretty busy and never got around to doing very much.

About 6 months ago, after yet another month of intensive work to get a financing for a solar project over the finish line, I decided that I needed a little more investment into myself.  I have already written a blog on starting to play D&D again, and taking the time to actually write was one of the things I wanted to do.  I thought that I had enough experience as a CFO of public companies (12 years now) to add value in sharing my experience and I also wanted to write about the different things I do for fun.

The past Black Friday there was another sale email that came about hosting WordPress on your own GoDaddy site and I decided to try that.  I had absolutely zero experience with WordPress but it looked like it was the leading blogging product out there.  I now know that it is actually one of the leading website or content management systems in widespread use today, but it certainly is pretty powerful for blogging.

Once I had bought the WordPress option, I decided to start writing.  I wanted to get at least a few weeks done in advance so if my schedule became too busy I would not lack content.  I’m not a few weeks ahead now, but that is OK as I’ll have some time to bank some more blogs soon.

I decided to post Tuesday for CFO topics and Thursday for other topics.  I decided on the very first topic while drinking some beers after an SCA fighter practice.  One of the other knights there was interested in my put selling strategy and that was my first blog I wrote.  Over the Christmas break I wrote most of the first month of content.  This was just typing into Word on my iPad, I hadn’t done more than initiate the WordPress option at this point.

Now that I had some content done, I turned to actually getting the blog part working.  I decided that instead of reading a book on how to set things up, I would just try and do it cold.  I had deliberately chosen to host under my own name and to keep away from politics as a topic to write about because I spend about ½ my time in China and wordpress.com is blocked there.

There are many different hosts that support WordPress.  GoDaddy has a nice and integrated approach called “managed WordPress” but I even could have hosted it on my Asustor NAS if I had wanted to.  By using an external site, I was able to outsource the bandwidth and the maintenance of the WordPress program itself.  Managed WordPress means that WordPress itself is always kept up to date.  The releases for the major NAS are not as regular as WordPress itself, so you may have more security issues if you self host.  If you just want a small, local version of a blog or a website, then hosting on a NAS could be a good solution.

The first step seemed to be choosing a theme which seems to be the look and feel of your blog site.  I initially used one of the prominent starter themes called 2015, but I didn’t like the multi-column look.  I searched through for something simple and found a theme called Lovecraft and decided that I liked it.  There are thousands of free themes and lots of themes that you need to pay for as well.  I have marked exploring themes down as something to do in the future.

My chosen theme used a horizontal picture across the top and I made my first design choice and picked a picture of the effigy of William Marshall that I had taken myself at the Temple Church in London.  I have always been fond and interested in him and I was able to figure out how to upload the picture onto my site.  WordPress uses a media repository and serves up pictures from there.  You also can use a URL to a picture if you want that instead.

With a theme and a top picture chosen, I clicked on “publish” and now I had live content.  I used wechat to get a colleague in China to check if my site would load.  A quick test later and it did work.  I puzzled and puzzled over how users were supposed to login to make comments.  I even contacted GoDaddy customer service and they helped me to figure it out.  Nothing appears  on the main page, but there is an option if you go to the individual blog page (click on a headline on the front page if you did not use a link to go directly there).

A blog with no readers is not that useful, so I posted the link to my page on my Facebook feed.  I did that manually, and noticed that the picture of William showed up as a preview.

The next thing I experimented with was publishing into the future.  WordPress makes that easy with an obvious scheduling option.  I tested it out, scheduling my post to show up the next mornings and, sure enough, when I woke up, there was the post published for the world to see.

I grew concerned that perhaps with the comment system turned on, that I might attract spam.  So the first option I looked for was something to handle spam.  There was a prominent option called “plugins” on the left menu when I signed in as the editor of the site (you can have multiple editors).  Just like themes, there is a powerful built-in search I was able to use.  A simple search for spam and I was able to find a plug in with a very large number of users called Akismet.  It was pretty simple to install and I quickly had spam protection.

The next thing I wanted is something that would track users.  I know that Google has quite an extensive suite of options to track visitors to websites called Google Analytics and I search for that in plug-ins .  I found one called Google Analytics for WP Dashboard.  I later found out that Yoast is probably the most popular, but the one I picked is near the top in popularity as well.  That plug-in inserted the needed tracking code into my website and now I could see statistics on the tens of people visiting my blog.

I also knew that there was something called Search Engine Optimization of SEO, and I searched for a plug-in that does that.  I picked All In One SEO Pack and it seemed to do what I would expect such a plug-in to do.  There is a Yoast version of that as well.  I am still not 100% sure what all the options do there, but I have slowly started using the different features.

By now I was several weeks into the blog being posted and was posting links on my Facebook and LinkedIn.  This was completely manual at this point.  I knew I would be travelling and I needed more options.  I again did a little searching in the plugins and some Google searching as well, and discovered that Jetpack which is by the same company that does WordPress is a very popular option.  It can automatically post to many popular social media sites but does have some limitations like it does not post to LinkedIn groups.  Since the few groups I belong to have the broadest reach anyways, I thought a more manual touch was appropriate and that did not bother me.

Jetpack actually adds quite a lot more features than just posting to social media .  It adds a much better commenting system but it is hosted on the WordPress site so it is not a good solution for users in China.  It adds the option to subscribe to new posts but the final step to that involves the WordPress site as well.  I may turn that on anyways.  Is does add the sharing buttons which are now on my site and an optimized theme for mobile devices which I am trying out.  If you are looking at starting a blog or a content-rich website, you may want to consider using all the other features of Jetpack.

The final thing I added to my blog was advertising.  Google and Amazon seem to be the most popular advertising options out there.  I did not want to make any advertising too obtrusive.  Far too many posts on LinkedIn and Facebook are just click bait with ad after ad in the middle of the article you are trying to read.  I am trying to keep the ads out of the way.  Because Google is blocked, I decided to go with Amazon.com.  I signed up for Amazon Associates which gives you a special ID and the ability to generate links with the ID embedded.  I first used links for books and then tried to figure out how to post a more generic ad as well.  There are plug-ins that help, but I found that using the text widget with the HTML in it is the best.  I still have not figured out how to place the more natural link for products that is generated, online seems to refer to posting them in HTML mode but I seem to have visual and text as the two modes to post in.

I guess I am now a professional blogger as I have made $0.65 as of this blog being posted.

This has been my process so far, trial and error by someone that has seen some concepts mentioned (like SEO) but never actually had to do anything about it.  I keep discovering extras like featured image which allows each of my posts to have their own image plus the SEO package has it’s own way of populating the OpenGraph (Facebook standard) excerpting.

If you are wondering if I really am a technical CFO, this blog and the process I just described is typical for me.  I am fine with someone showing me what to do, but I like to struggle through things myself to learn.  It really is not that hard or expensive to do.  You can write only on social media, but I feel you have more control and reach on your own website.

As a quick summary – find a host that you trust that can provide the WordPress program.  If you use WordPress itself you limit yourself to non-China visitors but maybe gain additional functionality.  Pick a theme and add in the plug-ins you need.  Publish and publicize.  Don’t be overly annoying when you do the publicity.  Unless you are a large and well established blog, you are unlikely to make any real money from your writing, but there are easy to use ways to monetize yourself a little.

Next up for me is to turn my blog posts into podcasts.  Something else for me to learn from scratch.

Book reviews – Flex and the Flux

People that know me know my travel schedule is very demanding.  I fly back and forth to Asia far too often.  One thing my schedule give me is time to read and I thought I would use my site to occasionally post reviews of what I have read recently.  For my blog, I will only post about things I liked.  I want to give recommendations of things to try with the idea that the person reading it might buy the book right before jumping on a plane for a trip.  So I will provide links to the books, but Kindle versions only as I am imagining you buying the booking online in the airport right before you board.

I decided to start with two books by Ferrett Steinmetz, the first two books in his ‘Mancer series.  I chose them for a few reasons.  They are good and they are entertaining and certainly will help a flight go faster.  My daughter Rachel  loved them so much that she wrote her first ever fan letter to Ferrett.  Finally, I actually know Ferrett personally.  Not really as close friends or anything, but someone I have met a couple of times in real life and who I have followed his online writing via Magic the Gathering editing and articles, web comic and blog for years.  He was someone that I always thought would end up being a good fiction writer and he certainly deserves a boost.

Ferrett has created a very interesting world where people who are obsessed with something can, in the right circumstances, harness their obsession to break the laws of reality and use magic.  People can be obsessed with many things, and usually the obsession makes the characters loners in some ways.  They certainly need to hide their magic as it is illegal.  Magic is dangerous for two reasons – the first is that there always is a negative consequence to using magic call The Flux.  The second is that powerful enough magic, especially when more than one person is doing it, can tear reality and open a hole to a malevolent dimension.  Europe was destroyed because of reality being torn there.  The government actively hunts and stops people who use magic.

The main character is Paul Tsabo, an insurance adjuster that can harness the power of bureaucracy to perform his magic (I am sure you can see why an accountant like me would like that).  A personal tragedy caused by an improper use of a powerful drug called Flex (distilled magic that can be used by anyone but you cannot escape the consequences) forces him to be  much more aggressive in using his magic.

The two books so far have an interesting cast of characters and they come in all shapes, sizes, colors and sexual preferences.  Certainly no stereotypical backgrounds here.

Flex  5/5 (book 1)

I’m not so into video games as one of the sub-themes in the work requires and I really did not feel the gel between the main male and female character, the reasons for friendship really were too flimsy for me, but the story and the characters were well done. The writing also was quite developed and it had a good and enjoyable rhythm. It was hard to put down once it got going.

The magic system fits somewhat together but does not quite click for me. It needs a little more fleshing out and the “flux” doesn’t seem really proportionate to the magic being used at times. I also wonder that considering the flex that the main character is able to make – magic with no consequences – why he was not able to get better help. That is the problem with any magic system, though. It is magic and logic just breaks down at a certain point.

The book was very entertaining and I am comfortable with a “five star” rating as I think that it really does deserve to be read by more people.  I rarely give books a 5 star rating, but this one was fresh and interesting and a good read.

Flex – Kindle version

The Flux 4/5  (book 2)

I enjoyed the book, but did not think it was quite as good as Flex. I really thought the scenes in the Institute dragged on too long and then were wrapped up too abruptly in the end. The ending almost felt like it was written differently than the middle section of the book, felt like the book maybe was a little too short or something and was padded or edited differently in the middle.

The story itself did move along OK, with several set piece fights and confrontations. We learn more about the world the stories are set in and some more information on what happened to Europe and why it happened. Really not much change in the main characters compared to what was happening at the end of Flex. I did not note any real growth or change in them which was a little disappointing.  Even so, I liked the ending and I am looking forward to book three which should be out soon.

The Flux – Kindle version

What is network attached storage and why should you use it?

I have had a keen interest in computers even since grade 9 when I started to have access to the Apple ][+ computers that my high school had purchased. This is not meant to be an article on the old history of personal computers, but Apple was one of the very first companies that got a few basic things right and that laid the foundation for their early success. One of these things was the introduction of floppy disk drives for their products and the leap in usefulness that happened when you moved from cassette tape to a floppy disk gave them a big advantage. The speed and storage gave them a big advantage.

Storage has always been a niche but crucial part of the experience of using a computer, even if a computer is disguised as a smart phone or tablet. With exception of terminals that were just a screen and a keyboard connecting to a remote computer that had the storage, most home users have relied on local storage, or storage located in the device or computer you use. The main reasons for this has been speed and ease of access. If you want to watch a movie or listen to a song, the huge drop in speed to download over slow connections compared to it just starting to play immediately.

The problem is that media files take up a lot of storage. So you either need to have larger and larger hard drives in your computer, pay for more storage memory in your mobile device, or rely on outside storage and download over the Internet which can be slow and hard to access. If you have a family with kids, everyone will want more and bigger hard drives and sharing files can be either a drop down to the “sneaker nets” that always seem to exist (copy onto a flash drive and walk over to the other computer) or opening up your computer hard drives to sharing and dealing with it computer by computer.

The first time a hard drive crashes and you do not have a back-up is all most always the motivation to make backing up something you want to do on a regular basis. The first solution many people try is a USB drive plugged into their computer and manually copying files. This also only covers the one computer it is plugged into. Multiple back-ups means either multiple back-up disks or moving the sub hard drive from one computer to another.

Another reason is because you want access to media files and you don’t want to have multiple local files. With many devices that can now play media files to TV’s or audio systems or some other playback device, it makes sense that you would want one access point and source within your house instead of keeping many copies that all take space.

Finally, you may want access to some files when you are traveling. You can again use a USB drive or make local copies, but you need to plan in advance then and know what file you want to bring with you.

Since this post is about NAS, I am sure that many readers might expect me to jump right to the different main companies out there, but there actually is an intermediate step. If it is just back-up and file access you need, your router may already have a built in solution. Many higher end home routers come with a USB port and the ability to share files if you plug a USB hard drive into it. Even if your current router doesn’t have that feature, that fact alone probably means that you have a lower end router. If you are moving a lot of data around, a higher end router that lets you plug in and share a hard drive might be all you need.

If you will have multiple people streaming or using files at the same time (or multiple devices), then a dedicated NAS unit may be better. There are two main companies that provide NAS and quite a few companies that are not the leaders but do sell dedicated devices. You can even build your own. The two main companies are Synology and QNAP. Some examples of smaller companies or companies that also provide NAS are Asustor (the company I chose), netgear, and the main hard drive companies like Western Digital and Seagate.

When you buy an NAS, you are essentially buying a small, dedicated server. Small as in size of the device compared to a normal computer, not small in storage area. Typical HD configuration is either 2 drives or 4 drives. I suggest 4 TB NAS drives which means 8TB or 16TB before the effects of RAID (is any). The main NAS on the market all have a modified version of Linux in their firmware. What they have done is add a “skin” or outer layer that you can access via the A web browser that allows,you to configure and use your NAS. They have tried to make configuring the files as easy as possible compared to straight Linus.

The basic function of serving files comes from SAMBA, a well developed service. The file services generally available are SMB (server message block) and CIFS (common internet file system) both based on protocols that Microsoft introduced. You don’t need to know all of this to use your NAS, but it should work fine with standard Windows and Mac computers. All of the mainstream NAS allow the NAS to be a Time Machine back-up target. That means that backing up your Mac should be easy and automatic. All of the major NAS allow you multiple accounts for different users and allow you to even determine how much disk space each gets.

One of the very first choices you need to make when first setting up your new NAS is what RAID you will use. RAID stands for redundant array of inexpensive/independent disks and is a technology that allows several disks to be seen as one logical unit and may also help in integrity of your data via mirroring of data across several disks. The most commonly used RAID is RAId 5 and it basically allows a 4 disk array to keep working even if one disk goes bad at then penalty of losing 25% of your storage (it actually is n-1 disks available so 3 disk means you can lose 1 disk but you lose 33% of your storage).

Before I get any further, let me state clearly that RAID is not back-up. Even if only one drive does fail, there is a reasonable chance that something else will go wrong when the drive is replaces and a new array is built. RAID can help partially protect your data depending on what type you choose. Some RAID like RAID 0 are very fast but one disk failure will result in data loss in all drives.

My general advice is this. RAID 5 or no RAID. I personally use RAID 5 and sacrifice the space for a little pice of mind. No matter what you choose, back up the files on your NAS. You need at least 3 disks to run RAID 5, so if you go with a 2 disk model for your NAS you need to make another choice. Let me assure you, what RAID to use is almost a religious decision. There are quite a few people that strongly dislike RAID 5 and they would disagree with my advice here.

You will want to connect the NAS via an Ethernet cable to your router. Most do not come with built in wifi capability, so you need to do that anyways. Since they do not need a screen or keyboard, they can be put just about anywhere that is handy for them to be connected to the router. Many come with 2 Ethernet connection ports. If you use both they will try and balance demand over both ports to keep throughput as good as possible.

Once the NAS is up and running, you should explore all the additional programs available over and above the basic file service. You may also have to forward a few ports in your router if you want to access the NAS from outside your home network.

Some example programs that are available: surveillance camera software (all that storage is good for something), iTunes server (unfortunately does not work with Apple TV), ERP, customer service ticket systems, media servers such as Plex, photo file servers, personal cloud software, Teamspeak servers, anti virus software and sophisticated back-up software and many more.

You can always use an online, cloud service to back-up and it might be the right way to make occasional offsite back-ups of your NAS.  However, this can be slow to do on a regular basis and you can serve files on your local network much faster from a local source than an external, internet based source.

I like using my NAS and I recommend that you consider getting one for your own home. I probably will return to this topic in a while with a lot more details on a few areas.

Some home or small office NAS I recommend

I personally picked the Asustor 5004T for my own use but I like all three I recommend here.  This was mainly because you get a little more hardware bang for the buck.  The user community for QNAP and Synology is much larger.  Each of these should be able to handle some media transcoding.

Asustor NAS 5004T

QNAP TS-451

Synology 415+

NAS Hard Drives

I recommend the WD Red 4 TB drives.

NAS hard drives

Hamilton – My Review

I was in NYC recently, traveling to attend an investor relations conference. My 18 year old daughter had one more week of winter break left so I took her along with me. She likes Broadway musicals and I was pretty sure she would want to go to at least one while we were there (I also took her to see a hockey game). I asked her what was the show she wanted to see the most and she told me Hamilton.

Everyone has blind spots. I am not that into musicals and plays, and I had not heard of it before. She explained that it was a hip-hop musical about Hamilton the Founding Father. I don’t get to spend as much time with my kids as I would like to and I could tell that she really wanted to go. She told me that it was sold out for months and that she would understand if we couldn’t go.

I checked with the hotel concierge and she confirmed that the show was truly special and that tickets were available from brokers. They would be expensive but she probably could get me one. (as an aside, they were also available via Stubhub and I am sure on other ticket platforms). The tickets were expensive but I decided that it would be a special birthday present for Sarah and I bought them.

So I went to the show with her and did not spend any time other than a quick read on the creator of the show (Lin-Manual Miranda). I was completely unprepared for what I was about to see.

The stage is plain. Bricks in the background. Simple wood beams making a loft in the background. The staging is simple through the whole show. Nothing more than chairs and tables to suggest the various rooms the musical is set in. There is one battlefield scene and several duels and the simple and open stage is well used to put you into each scene.

The opening number – Alexander Hamilton – introduces you to both the musical style of the show and to some of the main characters. No hiding the ending, Aaron Burr introduces himself as the one who shot Hamilton and there is more than one woman that introduces herself as loving him. The story is also clear – Hamilton rises from nothing and changes the world.

Two other things are also made clear. The first is that calling it a “hip-hop” musical is not really correct. The show starts off with rapping but even the opening number is a mixture of rap and traditional Broadway “big show” singing. There are a variety of musical styles in the show. I am nowhere near an expert and typically not even a huge fan of Broadway musicals, but I have been to enough to easily detect the foundation on which the music is based on. There certainly is a fair amount or rap, in particular “bragging” rap where different founding fathers claim superiority. Even the hip-hop ranges in years and there is older and newer styling for the songs.

The second is that the casting is completely color-blind. With the heavy leaning towards hip-hop, many of the cast are black but it is mixed. It actually helps to breakdown the traditional views of the Founding Fathers and helps immerse you in the musical. Even if you have better than average knowledge of the history of the time, no one looks that any real historical character (except maybe King George) which I found helped me concentrate on and enjoy the show.

The show itself is an unabashed love affair for both America and NYC and the opportunity you get while here. The very first line of the very first song makes it clear.

[Burr]
“How does a bastard, orphan, son of a whore and a Scotsman,
dropped in the middle of a forgotten spot in the Caribbean by providence
impoverished, in squalor
Grow up to be a hero and a scholar?”

There are references to Hamilton’s very humble upbringing throughout the show and that is historically accurate. Not so much was written about him because he died comparably young and his enemies outlived him. I knew the very basics (hard not to know who Hamilton was and what he did if your career is finance) and a little more from the John Adams mini-series, but the musical was actually quite historically informative.

The entire show is singing. I can’t recall that many if any truly spoken lines.

The lyrics for all the songs, with annotations and the creator’s blessing can be found here:

http://genius.com/albums/Lin-manuel-miranda/Hamilton-original-broadway-cast-recording

The songs in the show vary in tone with most characters getting their own special style. Washington sounds very different than Hamilton and Burr. Jefferson also has a distinctive style. Of course, King George has his very own and completely different musical style. As befits the British monarch, British invasion pop and he sings a song as if he is a jilted lover. There is even a few good rap battles between Jefferson and Hamilton in the cabinet meetings.

The musical is both inspirational and absolutely heartbreaking. Hamilton had several tragedies in his life and most were self inflicted. He pushed too hard on people and that comes through in the songs and events in the musical. Hamilton is the most directly insulting to others in his lyrics and his youth and brashness really comes through in the first act.

The choreography and costuming is spot on. The dancing is simple and energetic. The character in focus is the one that stands out in each scene. I have seen other musicals that get very carried away with overly intricate dancing that distracts from the story. Hamilton has good dancing but it blends seamlessly into the story and does not look like it is forced there because someone wanted a big dance number.

The costumes also are straightforward and invoke the period. As Hamilton becomes more successful his dress improves but it is easy to see that he is more brash and unsure of himself when you compare his dress to the older and more experienced characters.

The musical is mainly set in NYC (with a scene in Yorktown and a couple of duels just across the water in New Jersey). Many people forget that NYC was the original capital and Hamilton is a good reminder. There are quite a few nods to NYC being the place where immigrants arrive and make things happen. There is a reminder of how much Revolutionary USA owed to the French and France.

I want to pause a moment here and reflect on the fact that I am writing a review about a smash Broadway hit and I am discussing history in the review. The show is such a genius production that it actually presents a pretty accurate version of important history in a way that you are captivated and drawn in. Many of the basic questions that were argued then are there in the musical. Mercantile North vs. agrarian South. Centralizing credit and currency in a Federal Union vs. every state for themselves. Slavery (Hamilton was opposed to slavery and he calls out Jefferson on his status as a slaver). The fact that writing and getting the Constitution ratified and the USA actually established was not a forgone conclusion after the Revolution.

I was very impressed when they had a song where Washington had Hamilton write his fair well speech. For all that he did as the General that won the war and the early days as the first President, perhaps his greatest legacy is that he gave up power and let someone else get voted into power by the people. There could have been a new line of “Kings” established, but each of the original Presidents followed his lead and let the voters decide (term limits did not actually come into existence for a long time afterwards).

So if you American history is rusty or weak, you can justify going to see a Broadway musical as a history refresher.

I also enjoyed the nods to the banking system and the placement of New York City into the heart of it. Hamilton trades away NYC being the capital in order to get his first and foundation bill passed. In fact, “The Room Where it Happens” is one of my favorite songs in the show.

Again, a song about political deals being cut behind closed doors is one of the show stopper tunes in the musical. It fits right in. It is sophisticated – Burr laments the closed door approach but also shows that he is not just worried about the way it happened but also he does not like not being one of the people in the room making it happen. It also shows Hamilton’s genius. He trades something of small value to him (and probably actually of small value) in order to get what he really thought was important done. By giving up the location of the capital to the leaders of the Southern block that had stalled his Treasury bill out, he gains the actual bill and the power to mold the future economic strength of the country the way he sees fit. All in the form of a very engaging song. The song is even mainly sung by Burr who was not there and the people that were there only have bit parts.

The staging of “The Room Where it Happens” shows how deep and strong the production actually is. The happenings are presented by Burr and the three in question are in the background “behind closed doors”. The other actors are there and sing a few parts of the song, but they are in the background. The words that he is singing make it appear that he is complaining about the lack of openness and transparency but the inflection and timing of the words make it obvious that his real complaint is that he is not in the room.

“BURR
The immigrant emerges with unprecedented financial power
A system he can shape however he wants
The Virginians emerge with the nation’s capital”

My knowledge Broadway musicals is limited (I did catch the reference when Washington was introduced as a Modern Major General) and I like some hip-hop and rap but it certainly was not the music I grew up listening to. If you want to see some of the references and influences for each of the songs, the link I posted is a great source.

I also am not an expert on dancing, but I can tell when the motion is well choreographed. The stage is well used and the characters do not just stand there and sing, they move and the others in the cast also move. The movement is not overdone and distracting, it is movement of focussed energy.

I certainly highly recommend that you see the show. The Richard Rogers theatre is pretty small and as long as you on not on the very sides, even the seats pretty far back are good. It is very hard to get tickets now, so you probably will have to rely on ticket brokers or websites like Stubhub or Ticketmaster resale. I thought it was well worth the exaggerated price.

The stars were also very gracious about signing autographs and posing for pictures despite the huge crowd waiting at the stage door.

Hamilton (Original Broadway Cast Recording)(Explicit)(2CD)

Alexander Hamilton

Why I had to see the Force Awakens a second time

I saw the original Star Wars when it came out in 1977.  For those counting, I was 11 years old.  At that point I had already started loving Science Fiction and Fantasy.  I was almost finished or finishing Grade 6 and was going to start HS that fall in Montreal, far away from the suburb I grew up in.

Like many people, watching that first Star Wars film was magical.  It had space battles, a small group of rebels fighting and winning against a massive and powerful empire, and sword fights and magic.  I was captivated by the movie and swept away.  I am sure that it was a big influence on me and one of the reasons why I joined the SCA (I wanted to be a knight).

Like most people who fell in love with Star Wars via the original trilogy, I was very unsatisfied with the prequel trilogy. In particular, the Phantom Menace was so terrible to me that I almost quit going to the films.  It was mainly a sense of stubbornness that made me complete the prequel trilogy.  Years later after several more viewings of the prequel movies I still think they are poor, but they at least have some decent lightsabre battles.

So I went from a childish sense of wonder from the first trilogy to an adult disappointment with the second trilogy.  For The Force Awakens, I decided I would not go see it until I had heard that it was not terrible.  So I made no effort to get tickets on or near opening day and then I waited to hear what people thought of the new movie.

The verdict was pretty much the new movie did not suck.

So I went to the movie.  I went with my 18 year old daughter who only watched the Star Wars films in the past few years and liked them but was not a fanatic.

We both liked it.  Sarah was even much more enthusiastic than I was, but I left the theatre happy that the movie actually was competently made and did not make me feel sad and dumb for liking the series.  However, I was not completely sold on the film and had quite a few reservations bouncing around in my head as I thought about it.  The main one was that it followed too many things from the first film and I thought it was too tied to redoing that story.  The other was dealing with Harrison Ford being so old.  I loved Hans Solo.  He was young and cocky and full of life.  A much older Harrison Ford who had almost died in a plane crash just could not walk and move like the Hans Solo of old.  Finally, I thought that the lightsabre battles just were off and not that exciting.

I went to see the movie again.  I enjoyed it a lot more the second time.  Afterwards, I tried to track down what was different the second time around.  It was so obvious that I am surprised I did not realize what was so different the second time around.  I saw the movie without being afraid.

The first time I went, even though enough people had said it did not suck, I was very worried that I would leave disappointed again and another little bit of childhood magic would slip away.  So I could not relax and just watch the film.

The second time I knew that the movie was good.

And this time I left with a smile on my face and the memory of dancing around at 11 holding a stick and wielding a lightsabre firmly in my mind.

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