Monday, January 31, 2011

Casper, Betty Boop -- ah, what's the difference?

Saturday, January 29, 2011

DirecTV offer is less than it appears

DirecTV is offering a deal to AAA members of $19.99 a month for the first year, and a $10 discount for eight months of the second year. You have to commit to two years.

I currently have Dish Network service, paying $45.99 for their lowest tier of channels and a DVR. I'm fairly happy with Dish, but heck, $19.99 a month is pretty tempting.

Now I'm not an idiot – though my wife might disagree – I know that the initial rate is just a teaser. So the question was: How much will this REALLY cost?

The DirecTV ad offered enough small print to impress Leo Tolstoy and it was impossible to decipher any of it. So I called DirecTV, um, directly. 

Here's what I found: First, you have to pay $5 extra a month for each additional TV. I have two TVs, so now we're talking $24.99.

But you don't get a DVR at that price. You have to upgrade to the next higher tier, which is $5 more per month, plus $7 for the DVR. So all of sudden the $19.99 deal has ballooned to $36.99. And that's just for the first year.

In the second year, the price jumps to $65.99 per month for eight months, then $75.99 per month from then on. Plus, there's a $19.99 setup fee at the start  So over two years, you'd spend an average of $53.99 a month – well above my current rate.

The customer rep I spoke did offer one slightly cheaper option. You have to sign up for the higher tier to get the DVR, but she said that after a year, I could downgrade to the lower tier and keep the DVR. This would mean that in the second year, I'd pay $53.99 for eight months and then $63.99 after that. This would bring the average monthly price for the first two years to $47.99 – still more than I'm currently paying.  And, of course, after two years, I'd be paying $18 a month more than I do now.

I'm sticking with Dish.


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Wednesday, January 26, 2011

By "ALL" we, of course, mean "some"

What's worse: A lender that doesn't know that escrow is a closing cost? Or one that doesn't know the meaning of the word "all"?


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Monday, January 24, 2011

Book review: "Alaska Wilderness: Exploring the Central Brooks Range"

It seems hard to believe that as recently as the 1930s large chunks of American territory were completely unexplored. These uncharted regions were in northern Alaska, and for Robert Marshall the chance to be the first to set foot in them was irresistible.

Alaska's Brooks Range
"Alaska Wilderness" is the engaging story of Marshall's visits into the unknown reaches of the Alaska's Brooks Range.

On the face of it, this book doesn't seem to have a whole lot going for it. There are only a few moments of peril and drama, and just a sprinkling of humor. Marshall's descriptions of the people he meets and travels with are fairly one-dimensional. Mostly, the book is a chronological account of Marshall's hikes and boat trips, with the author spending a lot of time describing in detail the mountains and landscape he discovers. It seems like this should be dull.

But Marshall is such a likeable guy and his enthusiasm for nature is so genuine that you can't help but enjoy going along with him on his explorations. Before long, you're just as eager as Marshall to find out what is over the next ridge or around the next bend. The book's good maps help the reader follow Marshall's travels.

Marshall valued exploration for the sake of exploration and his plain-spoken opinions on the subject are refreshing. For example:

"There is something glorious in traveling beyond the ends of the earth, in cutting loose from the bonds of world-wide civilization. Such life holds a joy and an exhilaration which most explorers today cannot understand, with their radios and aeroplanes which make the remotest corners of the world just a few days or even hours away in distance. Modern mechanical ingenuity has brought many good things to the world, but in the long list of high values which it has ruined, one of the greatest is the value of isolation."


"As I see it, Peary's discovery of the North Pole, Amundsen's journey to the South Pole, Byrd's junketing in Antarctica, or the impending ascent of Mount Everest do not make the road of humanity as a whole the least bit happier. In fact, one could argue, the net result of these activities is to make mankind a little poorer because when an exploration is made there is that much less possibility left in the world for others to experience the joy of exploration in hitherto unknown regions. The justification, if one is needed, for present-day exploration, therefore is almost exclusively the selfish one of giving oneself the exhilaration of that most glorious of all pastimes, setting foot where no human being has ever trod before."

We are lucky that one of the first men to explore the Brooks Range was such an able writer as Robert Marshall, and that he so honestly shares the experience with us.

Friday, January 21, 2011

How to save $25 joining L.A. Fitness

Important update: "How to Save Money Joining L.A. Fitness"

Update on this topic: Want a deal on joining L.A. Fitness? Call Paul


When I went into a L.A. Fitness recently and asked about membership, they offered me two rates:
  • $50 initiation and $29.99 a month
  • $175 initiation and $25.99 a month.
But I found a slightly better rate – $25 initiation and $29.99 a month –
by going to the company's "Friends and Family" page.

You'll need a "discount code," so here are some:

As of Sept. 5, 2013, these codes work:





As of Aug. 2, 2013, these codes work:




If you find that none of those work, try moving on to higher number– say, 1949200.  With a little trial and error, you should find one that's valid. 

Note that LA Fitness may occasionally run specials that offer a better deal than this. My advice: Try the link above and make sure you have a discount code that works. Check the price that's offered. Then go into the club, and see if they can offer you a better deal in person. If not, go back and sign up online.

After signing up, you may be able to add your spouse, or someone else, as a member for no initiation fee.
But I found it impossible to do that online. See my post.

Update: See my post "How to get $29.99 per month and no initiation fee at L.A. Fitness"


Some people say the link above only takes them to the LA. Fitness main page, and they conclude that the discount is gone. Don't give up!

Here's what to do:

At the L.A. Fitness main page, move your mouse to the right side and a "Join Now" link will appear. Click on it.  Then go back to this article, and click on the "Friends and Family" link.  It should work then.


The best rate available as of July 31, 2013, appears to be $34.99 a month. With this deal, you get zero initiation.


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Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Review: Flying Karamazov Brothers

I'm a little relucatnt to say too much about the Flying Karamazov Brothers to those who haven't seen them. A lot of the fun in watching these four men perform is the surprise that comes from seeing something so totally unexpected and hard-to-describe.

To say that the Flying Karamazov Brothers is a juggling show falls far short of the mark. You can say, with some accuracy, that it's a juggling-comedy-improv-singing-dancing show, but you're still going to leave people asking: C'mon, really, what is it?

So the best thing to do is just go see them for yourself.

My family and I did just that, seeing the Karamazov Brothers on Saturday at the Carpenter Center in Long Beach, Calif., and it was just as funny and entertaining as when I saw them 30 years ago.  Yes, THIRTY years they've been going that long, with some personnel changes.

My favorite part of the show was "The Gamble," where one of their members claims to be able to juggle any three audience-provided items ("heavier than an ounce, lighter than 10 pounds, and smaller than a breadbox" ).

Audience members came prepared, and among the items that were delivered to the stage were a small skateboard, a wad of tape, and some cooked ribs (at least I think they were cooked). But those weren't the best: The audience ended up choosing (by applause) a cake, a balloon covered in marshmallow frosting, and a frisbee with root beer cans attached, which its creator had labeled "The Champ Defeatinator."

In the end, this crazy collection of items did defeat "The Champ" and he got a pie in the face.  But it wasn't the result that mattered as much as the chaotic and hilarious improv along the way.

Thirty years ago, I remember the Karamazov Brothers juggling running chain saws (OK, "juggling" isn't exactly accurate they tossed them from one to another). They didn't do that this time. Rather, they made creative use of the humble cardboard box to make music and mock Lady Gaga. And of course they showed off their juggling skills.

Parents will appreciate that the show is appropriate for kids, yet entertaining for all ages. 

I can't wait to see what the Karamazov Brothers do when I seen them in 2041.


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Sunday, January 16, 2011

Book review: "In the Heart of the Sea" by Nathaniel Philbrick

The sinking of the whaleship Essex in 1820 by an enraged sperm whale “was one of the most well-known marine disasters in of the nineteenth century,” writes Nathaniel Philbrick in “In the Heart of the Sea.”   But until I picked up this book, I had never heard of it.

Now I will never forget it.

Philbrick does an outstanding job pulling together information from disparate sources to create a gripping account of the Essex’s sinking and the crew’s subsequent struggle to survive.  The event was Herman Melville’s inspiration for “Moby Dick.”

The Essex sank in the middle of the Pacific, far from land, and its 20 men set out in three small boats in an effort to save themselves.  Most of them wouldn’t make it. 

It’s a grim story and sometimes painful to read, but is also fascinating and dramatic. More than a tale of survival, this book is a look at human strengths and failings in desperate circumstances.  “Like the Donner Party, the men of the Essex could have avoided disaster, but this does not diminish the extent of the men’s sufferings, or their bravery and extraordinary discipline,” Philbrick writes.

Setting the stage for the story, Philbrick illuminates the world of 19th century whaling and the town at its heart, Nantucket, Massachusetts. It was a difficult lifestyle in which men went away to sea for years at a time, while their wives ran the families and the town. Often, the husbands didn’t come back: About a quarter of adult Nantucket women were widows, Philbrick writes.

Still, for young men and boys (they started on the ships as young as 15), whaling offered a chance for adventure and advancement.  Once at sea, harsh realities set in. Philbrick notes the Natucketers’ favorite treatment for seasickness: “The sufferer was made to swallow a piece of pork fat tied to a string, which was then pulled back up again. If the symptoms returned, the process was repeated.”

I don’t want to spoil anyone’s reading of the story by saying too much about the events after the sinking, but there are some surprises. I like how Philbrick broadens his discussion of events by adding in scientific information on starvation, thirst and open-sea navigation.  Two good maps in the book were helpful.

If you like this sort of book, let me recommend two others. First, there’s “Unbroken,” the new book by Laura Hillenbrand, about an American who survives a plane crash, a perilous raft trip and extraordinary abuse in Japanese POW camps during World War II.   Another good read is “Adrift,” Steven Callahan’s first-person account of floating across the Atlantic alone for 76  days in a life raft after his sailboat sank (it may have been hit by a whale, though he never knew for sure).


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Friday, January 14, 2011

Review: "On the Road" by Jack Kerouac

First, let me say that I read just the first 10 chapters about one-fifth of this book. So if there is something spectacular in the remainder, I'm sorry, I missed it. But judging from what I read, I saw no reason to go on.

"On the Road" is a rambling series of disjointed episodes as the protagonist, Sal Paradise, travels across the country by bus and by hitchhiking. While Sal keeps moving, the story has little direction.

The fragmented nature of the book could be forgiven if the individual parts were interesting, but few are. I did enjoy the image of Sal and other hitchhikers clinging to a flatbed truck as it speeds across the plains, but that's about it. Sal's conversations with fellow hitchhikers and motorists who give him rides are brief and inconsequential. His time with friends, drinking beer and whiskey and pursuing women, are mostly juvenile and pointless.

Worst of all, Sal and the other central characters are only barely likeable, so the reader has little reason to care about them.


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