Sunday, September 30, 2012

Lazy Afternoon at Treptower Park

I can think of nothing more relaxing than spending a beautiful Sunday afternoon in Berlin's Treptower Park. The leaves are just starting to turn and the air is crisp.

Treat yourself to beer, traditional German food, music, and dance by heading to the Zenner-Eierschale overlooking the Spree River. You might even find yourself on the dance floor. 

Saturday, September 29, 2012

Deserted Berlin Streets

The Berlin Marathon is tomorrow, and the police are already closing off many of the major streets to auto traffic. It makes for great bicycling, but it's eerie riding on deserted streets. It reminds me of New York City as it prepared for Hurricane Irene in 2011.

The Next Global Pandemic

It's just a matter of time until we have the next global pandemic. There's a fascinating article in today's Guardian about the likelihood of the world experiencing a devastating pandemic, even more deadly that the Spanish Flu of 1918-19. 

Friday, September 28, 2012

Can a Movie Adaptation be as Good as the Book?

The Cast of Enchanted April (1992)
The more I watch movies that are adapted from books, the more I see the two as completely different art forms evoking different kinds of pleasure.

During my recent flight to Berlin, I decided to read, Enchanted April, Elizabeth von Arnim's 1922 novel (available for free on Project Gutenberg) about the trans-formative power of travel, and rediscovering love and hope. The 1992 film version is a favorite of mine, and I was curious to see how the novel would compare. Not surprisingly, the novel is just as clever, just as funny, and just as insightful as the movie. Although faithful to the book, the film makes a few changes to the story that, in my view, enhance the story's character development and magical quality. Enchanted April is one of those rare examples of where the movie and the book are both enjoyable on their own terms. 

Thursday, September 27, 2012

Where is Old Berlin?

When a tourist arrives in an unknown city, it's usual that he or she is a little confused. I often get questions from tourists seeking information about sightseeing attractions, transit schedules, or where they can find a beer garden.

The other day, as I was riding the bus, a young man asked me where he could find Berlin's old town (Alt-Stadt). That left me wondering. Even though Berlin has been around since the 13th century, it didn't become an important city until the late 1800s, shortly after the industrial revolution and German consolidation. That makes Berlin relatively new by European standards. Moreover, most of "old" Berlin was destroyed during WWII. In fact, there is no "old-part" of Berlin to speak of. There are a few historic buildings scattered across the city, but no specific area that I would truly call "old." So while Prague, Athens, and Rome are distinctly old, Berlin is modern through and through.   

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

The First Sign of Fall

Western Cemetery, Portland Maine 
It's officially fall, and on my last day in Portland before returning to Berlin, I took a walk in the nearby Western Cemetery. It was a perfect day with blue skies, temperatures in the mid 70s, and low humidity. I also noticed the first tree of the season that was ablaze in color. When I return to Portland in December, the city will be covered in snow with daily temperatures hovering in the 20s. Brrrrr. 

Saturday, September 22, 2012

Is the United Explorer Card Worth It?

Last December while connecting between flights at the Chicago O'Hare Airport, I decided to get the highly advertised United/Chase Explorer credit card. United Airlines had been promoting its new credit card like crazy and the benefits sounded good: priority boarding, 2 passes to the United Club Room per year, no annual fee for the first year ($95 after that), first checked bag for free, and lots of bonus miles. Unfortunately, as with most things, if it sounds to good to be true, it probably is.

To make a long story short, none of the card's benefits worked out as I expected. The free passes to the United Club Room never arrived (when I called United last March, they assured me the free passes would arrive soon), priority boarding meant being assigned to Group 4 boarding, and the free checked bag wasn't automatic; it always involved a long discourse with the airline agent at check-in.

So rather than face a $95 annual fee, I recently called United/Chase and canceled the card. However, what surprised me the most was the attitude taken by United/Chase. There was no sincere apology, no attempt to rectify a wrong, and no enticement for me to continue with card, i.e., a waiver of next year's $95 annual fee due to my inconvenience. (BTW: The United Club Room passes arrived 2 days after I canceled the card.)

If only companies would invest as much money in their product as in their advertising campaigns. Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote,
"If a man has good corn or wood, or boards, or pigs, to sell, or can make better chairs or knives, crucibles or church organs, than anybody else, you will find a broad hard-beaten road to his house, though it be in the wood."
In other words, good products sell themselves and poor products need lots of advertising. I won't be taken in by United Airlines again. Fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me. 

Friday, September 21, 2012

Read the New York Times for Free Online

Last April, the New York Times announced that visitors to would only be able to access 10 free articles a month, down from 20. The New York Times access policy was put into effect last year as a way to generate additional revenue.

People who want to read the New York Times have to pay for it. It sounds like a reasonable policy and good financial move. But the monthly subscription was too high for my budget ($15-$35), and with an almost unlimited supply of other free news sources, why pay? As a result, I no longer read the Times.

Don't get me wrong. I'm not opposed to online subscription services, but they need to be affordable. In the case of the New York Times, I think they overpriced their product. Nevertheless, for anyone with a bit of tech savvy, the NYTimes paywall is a minor inconvenience and is easily circumvented. For example, by deleting all the cookies for NYTimes. com, you can read an unlimited number of articles for free; or easier yet, just use Chrome in Incognito mode or Firefox in Private Browsing mode, and bypass the paywall altogether. In my case, I've given up on the Times and started reading the Guardian

Sunday, September 16, 2012

The End of Another Maine Summer in Images

View of Portland from Back Cove at Low Tide
Yesterday, I took a walk along the Back Cove shoreline in Portland. The bite of the sea air and changing leaves left me wondering where the summer had gone. It's not officially fall, but it sure feels like it. The mornings are chilly, the afternoons breezy, and the nights cold. I could sense the onset of fall and the coming of winter. It left me a bit depressed thinking of the long long winter. 
Lone Duck Forages during Low Tide
at Back Cove
Even so, fall is a wonderful time to be in Portland. The tourists have left, the days are sunny, and the mosquitoes are hibernating. Kayaking is especially good this time of year. I enjoy the Scarborough Audubon Marsh where the clouds and water magically come together.  

Scarborough Audubon Marsh

Along the Scarborough Marsh

Friday, September 14, 2012

A Good Reason To Adopt a Cat

There are many reasons to adopt a cat or a dog. They provide companionship, affection, and unconditional love. Each year between 3 million and 4 million cats and dogs are euthanized. Why not save a life. And, by the way, did you know, a cat or dog might save your life one day. Watch this video about Rusty, a rescue cat that became a guardian angel.

Monday, September 10, 2012

Plain and Simple: Voter ID Laws Seek to Disenfranchise Certain Voters

There's something insidious occurring these days in the world of American politics: it's the rash of new voter identification laws. On the surface, these new laws, requiring eligible voters to provide state issued photo identification at the polls, seem to be a common-sense approach to ensure election integrity. What's wrong with asking a voter to prove his or her identity? 

Proponents claim that the laws are necessary, or at least useful, to fight voter fraud; yet, there is little, if any evidence, that any significant number of people have attempted to vote illegally. As one expert put it, cases of voter fraud are more rare than getting struck by lightening

So why the new laws? 

Take the case of heavily Democratic Philadelphia where 18 percent of registered voters are without a current driver's license or other appropriate ID. After Pennsylvania passed its voter ID law, Republican House Majority Speaker Mike Turazi made no secret of the partisan nature of the new law. He told a Republican gathering in June that the new ID law would, "allow Governor Romney to win the state."

Republicans aren't even coy about it! The new ID laws seek to disenfranchise certain people from voting. Specifically, demographic groups that tend to vote for Democratic candidates. It's no coincidence that voter ID laws have only been enacted in Republican controlled states.

Nationwide, 25 percent of African-Americans and 18 percent of all Americans over 65 lack the kind of government-issued ID that would permit them to vote under the voter ID laws. And getting the proper ID takes time and costs money, especially for the poor, the disabled, and the young. A would-be voter must pay substantial fees both for an ID card and the backup documents needed to get it. The voter may also need to take several hours off work and travel significant distances to visit government offices that issue appropriate ID, offices that are only open during select daytime hours. 

Let's be realistic, these laws weren't enacted for the public good. They're aimed at benefiting a particular political party.

Saturday, September 8, 2012

Feel Good Movies that Transcend the Cliche

A couple of days ago, I had the pleasure of seeing Kinky Boots, a British movie based on a true story. It's one of those "feel good" movies that critics often dismiss as fluff. If anything, Kinky Boots is more quirky than kinky. And despite its stereotypical characters, it's an endearing movie, with perhaps a few lessons about acceptance.

Seeing the movie made me think of other movies that transcend their cliches and verge on the great. Here's a list of my favorite feel good movies. 

Shirley Valentine - What does it mean to be middle aged? This witty and clever movie stands for the proposition that it's never too late to start anew.

Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory - Although not usually considered a feel good movie, Gene Wilder's performance is so funny that you can't help but feel good. 

Finding Nemo - Ellen DeGeneres steals the show. She is incredible.

The Incredibles - Edna Mode! 

Some Like It Hot - Tony Curtis, Jack Lemon, and Marilyn Monroe. How can this miss! 

The Lady Eve - Fonda and Stanwyck have the chemistry in this screwball comedy from the early 1940s. 

Enchanted - This has it all: music, comedy and romance. A gem.

Gentlemen Prefer Blonds - Wow! Marilyn Monroe is both beautiful and funny in this comedy masterpiece. And don't forget Jane Russell. 

My Life Without Me - We all face the knowledge of our death. So, a movie that acknowledges the realities of life and death can, in a sense, make you feel good. At least it did for me.

Miracle on 34th Street - A touching movie about nobility, virtue, and faith. A holiday classic.

Educating Rita - Another inspiring movie about making changes in your life. 

Queen for Play - A quiet French film about chess. Kevin Klein in his first french speaking role. 

Friday, September 7, 2012

Towns are Unsafe for Wild Animals

During the late summer and early fall, I've noticed more wildlife around the neighborhood; and unfortunately, there is more road kill. This time of year, animals are preparing for winter and searching for food in populated areas. It's especially dangerous for these creatures at night when they are invisible to cars and trucks. Last week, there was a dead possum in front of our house, and few weeks ago, a dead skunk, a few houses down.

One way to discourage animals from wandering into unsafe areas is to keep pet food inside the house, and to keep trash and litter secured in animal-proof bins. It's also important to report any dead animals to the local animal control. Some animal control districts will search for any orphaned young to make sure they are cared for before they are returned to the wild. 

Thursday, September 6, 2012

Buy Netflix Stock?

During the last few months, I've mentioned the marked decline in the service provided by Netflix. Apparently, I'm not the only one to notice. Netflix shares have toppled in the last year, from a high of $221 to a current $55. So as an investor, is Netflix a good buy? Simple answer: No.

One of Netflix's biggest problems is licensing costs. Licensing costs have gone through the roof; and as a result, Netflix has not renewed licensing agreements with a number of companies, including Starz, the pay-TV cable service that supplied Netflix with films from Disney and Sony Pictures. I'm afraid they simply don't have enough bargaining leverage. There's no denying that films on Netflix's streaming service aren't as fresh as in the past. 

Moreover, Netflix's DVD rental operation is definitely suffering. Movies take longer to get or are unavailable. In a letter to shareholders in July, Netflix spent its entire opening summary touting its streaming business. There was no mention of its DVD business. Netflix seemed to act as though its rental division didn't exist, and that's telling.

Netflix is treating its DVD business with disdain, which isn't all that new. Last year, when the company was in the midst of widespread user outcry over its 60 percent price rise, Netflix announced that it would spin off its disc-rental operation. Soon after, Netflix was forced to ditch that plan and stick with its DVD operation.  

Just a few days ago, Amazon upped its competition against Netflix by signing a multi-year licensing deal with cable channel Epix, bringing a lot of popular films (Hunger Games, Iron Man 2) to Amazon's fledgling movie streaming service. Netflix recently ended its exclusive deal with Epix, and it's unclear whether it will renew the deal later this year. As more and more companies compete with Netflix, I wonder if it will remain the number one provider of on-demand Internet streaming media and DVD-by-mail. It won't if its service continues downward.

In fact, in the last few months, I've rediscovered our public library. It offers many movies that I like for free. 

Stock Tip: Stay away from Netflix shares. I recommend a hold or even a sell.

Disclaimer:  I do not own any Netflix shares.