Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Favorite Apps

Like a lot of people, I’m always on the lookout for useful apps and websites—preferably free—that make life easier. I thought I’d mention a few that I've found indispensible.

Clearcheckbook
Clearcheckbook is a free website and smartphone app that freed me from the tyranny of both Quicken and my handwritten checkbook register.

Clearcheckbook is a cloud-based checkbook register that allows you to manage and track multiple checking accounts. It includes basic but essential checking account features like reconciliation (called “jiving” here), balances, recurring transactions, split transactions, reminders, budgeting, customizable spending and income categories, reports, etc. You can also import and export in a variety of file formats, including CSV and Quicken’s QDF.

Better yet, the data is stored in the cloud in a free online user account, which can also be accessed via a ClearCheckBook smartphone app, so you can add purchases and check your balances remotely and on the go, which of course automatically syncs with the master account.

This app does NOT connect to your actual bank, so there is no danger of compromising your checking account. It's simply an electronic checkbook register.

To gain access to some additional features, users can upgrade to a paid premium account for $4 a month—for the most part, however, the free version meets all my needs. For me, the only drawback of the free version is that the income and expense totals for periods prior to the current calendar year is only available to premium users. As a workaround, though, I created a GoogleDocs spreadsheet into which I download my monthly checking account activity with a second sheet that automatically tallies income and expenses in total and by category for whatever date range I specify!

Mint.com

Mint.com allows you to see a snapshot and track practically all your finances—checking and savings accounts, credit cards, investments, investment and retirement accounts, mortgage and car loans, etc.—in one convenient place. Though you do need to input your log-in information for each account to make the initial connection between Mint and the individual accounts, there otherwise is no compromising information within Mint that places any of your personal or account information at risk—account numbers are not used and accounts are not linked or connected in any way. In other words, you cannot move or transfer money between accounts within Mint. Users may understandably still feel squeamish about all this, but to date, there have been no reports of breach violations as a result of Mint.

As this suggests, Mint is a one-stop website for users to check and monitor account balances and activities—individual transactions within the accounts are all viewable and update every time you log in or request it. And because it can connect to nearly any financial institution, the website calculates your net worth by adding your banking, savings and investments together, and subtracting debts such as mortgage, credit cards, and other loans. Since signing up for Mint, they've added a feature that provides an estimate of your home value as well. Other features at the site allow you to create and track a budget, receive reminders about upcoming payments, and advice on how to maximize investments and money management.

I can even access my financial data on the go thanks to Mint's free app for the iPhone! It’s so much more convenient than logging into different accounts.

Interestingly, Mint was recently purchased by Quicken after trying to launch a rival product. They clearly decided they couldn’t match Mint's innovation or subscriber reach and, fortunately, have not made any noticeable changes to the application.

XMarks (Bookmark organizer)

Like many people today, I have several computers at home and at work, with different browsers and platforms. Until XMarks, maintaining a consistency of bookmarks on multiple platforms and devices used to be a nightmare.

Xmarks is a browser add-on that allows users to synchronize and manage bookmarks across multiple browsers and devices. Users simply create a free registered account at Xmarks.com, to which they can upload and sync their bookmarks and then sync with as many browsers and computers as they wish! The bookmarks can be edited both within the browser and the online user account. You can even create different profiles to specify which bookmarks sync with each device.

The app can even store and sync your website passwords! (I did draw the line here—after syncing my passwords once, I deleted the data from my Xmarks account deciding I didn't want to keep this information online, even though it is a secure account. Syncing passwords is a separate option within Xmarks that you can turn on or off.)

If you sign up for the service, as a word of advice, take a little time to organize and consolidate your bookmarks first; as an example, I maintain separate folders for personal, work and comics-related bookmarks.

DropBox
As most people know by now, Dropbox is a “cloud” service that allows users to store files and sync with multiple computers.

By now, Dropbox is well known and remains the gold standard, having cashed in early on the Cloud service trend. Dropbox exists as its own folder on your desktop,which syncs to a master account, which in turn syncs to an identical Dropbox folder on whatever other computers you’ve connected to the account. It’s, of course, an efficient way to access and manage the same files on multiple computers without having to worry about having different versions.

As this suggests, Dropbox is completely transparent to the user and acts like any normal folder on your desktop. Though I haven’t explored them much, Dropbox has other features that users may find helpful. As an example, the trash saved in the online account that saves earlier versions of deleted files turned out to be a lifesaver for me once!

GoogleDocs/Google Drive
Though I mention Google Docs in passing above, my extensive use of this app has made GoogleDocs one of my most used apps. Initially created as a suite of web-based applications for word-processing, spreadsheets and presentation software, it’s morphed into a service that combines Microsoft Office features with Dropbox—it not only stores users’ GoogleDocs documents, but all kinds of other documents and files as well. Both Dropbox and GoogleDocs also provide specialized folders for publicly sharing files.

Like Dropbox, GoogleDocs has helped hasten the move to cloud-based file storage. In fact, recognizing the increasing importance of the cloud feature, GoogleDocs has been re-branded as Google Drive with subtle changes to the app.

Friday, October 19, 2012

Review: Truman

I had been meaning to read Truman by David McCullough for years, but what finally compelled me to read the bio was a biography of Wild Bill Donovan by Douglas Waller, which I reviewed earlier. Though he appears only briefly in Waller’s book, the well known no-nonsense style and common sense of Truman as portrayed in the book captivated me enough to commit to reading Truman when I finished the Donovan bio.

Many of Truman’s accomplishments and Horatio Alger rise are well known and require little elaboration. He was indeed as “common” a man who ever occupied the White House, embodying the uniquely American belief that anyone could become president. He was a college dropout (for financial reasons), a reluctant but committed farmer, and a failed haberdasher and businessman, who first found his footing and penchant for leadership as an artillery officer in World War I, serving despite being over age and poor eyesight. His one great passion was politics—a family preoccupation—and he soon found himself involved in local politics, then U.S. Senator, then Vice President. Though it’s not clear whether the party bosses (and President Franklin Roosevelt) understood that they were choosing the next president by selecting Truman as vice president since FDR’s failing health was by then an open secret in Washington, DC, Truman clearly rose to the occasion and then some.


There’s little in Truman’s biography to suggest that he would later be widely considered as one of the nation’s great presidents. Timing helped of course—he was a “wartime” president who presided over the end of World War II (making the fateful decision to drop the atom bomb) and the start of the “cold” war. But successfully meeting momentous challenges require clear-eyed leadership and smart decisions. Truman’s innate American prairie common sense and a no-nonsense leadership style were central to his success, as were strong Cabinet appointments like Dean Acheson and George Marshall, with whom he had strong personal and professional ties. But he also was a great student of history and of leadership, and had great respect for the presidency. Truman’s administration encompassed the Marshall Plan, the founding of the U.N., the Berlin Airlift, the founding of Israel, and established the Truman Doctrine which essentially guided U.S. foreign policy through the end of the Cold War. (As an ardent amateur architect, he also was responsible for renovating the White House, spending several years at a temporary residence while the chief executive mansion was renovated. It had literally been deemed unsafe and ready to collapse when he took office.)

One of the most remarkable revelations for me was that he was the product of one of the most powerful political machines in the country in Kansas City, Missouri. Though Truman was beholden to its boss, Tom Pendergast, through much of his career, there’s little evidence that Truman ever compromised himself, a remarkable feat, despite the attempt by rivals to use this association against him. (Indeed, while reading the biography, I wondered whether the corrupt senator in Frank Capra’s 1939 film, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, was partly based on Truman. In the film, Claude Raines plays a senator who is in the pocket of a corrupt political boss and bears a resemblance to Truman.) True to character, Truman remained loyal to Pendergast to a fault and never denied his connection to the man, causing a minor stir when he attended Pendergast’s funeral as vice president.

Perhaps not as revelatory is the portrayal of the Soviets in the book. Truman was truly committed to avoiding another world war and finding a way to peacefully co-exist with the U.S.S.R. Indeed, though Truman was always realistic and clear-eyed, he thought he would be able to reasonably negotiate with them. Indeed, he admitted both privately and, occasionally publicly (to much derision) that he personally liked “Uncle Joe” Stalin and at least could see where he stood. Over time, however, Truman came to realize that the Soviets thrived on instability and were expert at exploiting uncertainty, so he eventually came to recognize and accept the reality of the Cold War.

Also fascinating is the discussion of Truman’s “surprise” victory over challenger Thomas A. Dewey in 1948, which resulted in the iconic “Dewey Beats Truman” flub headline in the Chicago Tribune. With polling still in its infancy, the book shows that Truman may not have been as far behind as common wisdom (and the press) assumed. Truman did build momentum on one of the last great train whistle-stop campaigns of its kind, but it’s clear that his support in rural areas was greatly overlooked and underestimated. Dewey also did himself no favors by coasting and playing it safe since the polls had him so far out ahead. But ultimately the book notes that, still in its post-war boom, the U.S. was experiencing unprecedented growth and prosperity. So while there was some fatigue given Truman was seen as an extension of FDR’s unprecedented 12 years in office, it’s likely voters asked themselves, “Why rock the boat?” and decided to stay with Truman.

What’s striking about Truman was his genuine Capra-esque trust in the wisdom of the people and the common man. McCullough notes that Truman in his manners and values was essentially a 19th century man. He was also a fervent Democratic partisan and the product of staunch Confederate southerners—yet Truman’s vision, principles and values enabled him to rise above the provincialism and prejudices that were part of his environment and upbringing. Though in private his language and remarks could reveal the kind of easy racism that made  him to be a product of his time and place, he nevertheless became an early champion of civil rights (even though it seriously threatened his chances of re-election, he refused to back down on his civil right positions and was the first president to address the NAACP, which he did at the Lincoln Memorial) and at every State of the Union he always proposed universal health care.

Truman tells the remarkable story of a common man.

Thursday, October 11, 2012

I’ve briefly spoken here about the Inbetweeners, a British television series that ran for three seasons (in the British sense in that each series consisted of just 6 episodes). When I first stumbled across the series a few years ago, I thought it was one of the raunchiest—but funniest—shows I’d seen in awhile. I believe the show was largely inspired by the American Pie films. Indeed, I have described it to friends as “like American Pie, but funny.” It’s also not to be confused with the new Americanized adaptation of the show on MTV.

The Inbetweeners features four clueless high school students (or at least the equivalent of high school students in Great Britain, which has its own unique school system), who of course are preoccupied with girls, getting laid, and being cool. What makes the show so winning is the well-defined personalities of the characters and their chemistry with each other. The four leads include Will (actor Simon Bird), the private school refugee whose story kicks off the series when he is forced to go to public school after his parents divorce; Simon (Joe Thomas), who eventually becomes best mates with Will and who carries the torch for his gorgeous next door neighbor Carli, who is oblivious to his feelings; cocksure Jay (James Buckley), who constantly talks in explicit detail about his sexcapades that obviously never happened; and easy-going but thick-as-a-brick Neil (Blake Harrison) who is the epitome of “ignorance is bliss” but appears to have actually experienced success with girls though he never thinks to mention it despite everyone else’s obsession.

Below: A clip from the film.



As I mentioned, the show is incredibly raunchy and explicit. But also hilarious. Episodes have featured at least two instances of graphic projectile vomiting, and one instance of full frontal male nudity and one episode that prominently featured one of the character’s testicles in full view. Indeed, when I first watched the show, I wondered what the child laws in Britain were like before I confirmed the leads were all over 21.

I was excited to hear about the film’s release in the U.S.—as an indication of its popularity in Great Britain, the movie made news for giving the last Harry Potter film a run for its money at the box office.

Some of the advance reviews of the film in Great Britain seemed to express disappointment with the movie, so I wondered if it was a matter of a half-hour comedy show not translating well to a full-length feature. In keeping with its American inspiration, the film follows the lads to their last hurrah after graduation as they take a spring break-like trip to Malia in Greece, which like, Palm Springs in the U.S., apparently is a beach mecca for college-age partiers.

After seeing the film, however, I’m not sure what those critics were talking about—I found the film as funny as the show. And though the show’s creators worked to ensure there was a true story arc in the film—and they received kudos for introducing female characters who were more than just eye candy and window dressing—they didn’t lose sight of the goal to keep it funny and raunchy, and put the characters in as many humiliating situations as possible. In fact, the film ends as a nice coda to the series.

The film works fine without having seen the show, but probably ultimately works better for those who are fans and are familiar with the series. So, if you’re so inclined (keeping aware of the very hard-R content), I encourage you to shoot over to YouTube where the series is actually available in its entirety, as well as Netflix streaming where it has just become available.

Monday, October 8, 2012

Remembrance of Shows Past....

While housecleaning my files, I came across a folder of programs from past performances, events and exhibitions I’ve taken in over the years. Although I only recently became more methodical about preserving these souvenir programs, I was surprised to see how far back my file went. Being a bit of a pack rat, I obviously had thrown the older items into this file when I first created the folder. I thought it would be fun to reminisce on some of the memories they brought back.

Beatlemania!
One of the most surprising finds was my discovery of the program shown in the middle of the photo below from the original Broadway run of “Beatlemania,” which I saw in 1977 shortly after it opened (the show ran from 1977-79). I would have been 15 at the time and as a huge Beatles fan (as I still am) who was just too young to have seen them live while they were still together, seeing this show was the next best thing. (Lennon’s murder just three years later in 1980 occurred when I was a college freshman in L.A.). My younger brother and I were taken to the show by our aunt. We saw the show again a year later as a surprise from neighborhood friends--it was the summer before my family moved from New York to the West Coast and during a trip into Manhattan as a last hurrah, we walked by the Winter Garden Theater to reminisce about the show when our friends whipped out the tickets for that day’s performance!



The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui
One of my most memorable and electrifying theater experiences is, of all things, a UCLA student production of “The Rise and Fall of Arturo Ui.” Written by playwright Bertolt Brecht, the play is a thinly-disguised black comedy depiction of Adolf Hitler’s rise to power, re-imagined as a gang war for control of the vegetable produce market in 1930s America, with Hitler portrayed as a ruthless mob thug. I was a UCLA student at the time and was fortunate to be attending when there was quite a confluence of talent there, most notably actor Tim Robbins (whose Actor’s Gang Theatre Grouprelocated to my hometown in Culver City, where I have seen the actor numerous times while attending shows), but many others as well who I continue to see on film, television and stage. This was one of those performances where the power of the production transcended the confines of the stage, aided in large part by a nearly-cartoony stylized but fully formed lead performance of a talented student actor whose name escapes me now (I heard he tragically passed away a few years later of AIDS).

In the photo above you’ll see a program for the show—but it’s for a different production of “Ui.” This production is from 1999, which I made a point of seeing because of my fond memories of the earlier show. This was a much smaller and intimate production, staged by a German theater company, the Berliner Ensemble—and in the original German, though Brecht always had intended it for America. (The show was supertitled and I remember the production using the song, “The Night Chicago Died,” quite a bit.)  Before the theater opened its doors, I spotted actresses Lynn Redgrave and Jane Krasinski in the crowd milling about. As a related piece of performance art, prior to the show, an actor stood on the roof of the two-story theater building reciting from some of Hitler’s speeches in the original German. Kinda chilling.


Richard III
Prior to portraying Gandalf and Dr. Xavier on film, actor Ian McKellan was a respected British stage actor (he still is) who achieved success in Hollywood late in his career.

One of McKellan’s most celebrated stage successes was Shakespeare’s “Richard III,” which I had the fortune to see at UCLA’s Royce Hall Theatre in 1992. For this production, the play featuring one of Shakespeare’s great villains was re-imagined as a 1930s fascist drama, and McKellan was mesmerizing. Though the production was later adapted for film, the movie doesn’t come close to capturing the immediacy and urgency of the stage show. The show might have been better served had the production simply filmed the stage version.

King Lear and A Midsummer’s Night Dream
Kenneth Branagh’s 1989 film adaptation of Shakespeare’s “Henry V” made me an instant fan of the actor/director, who came out of nowhere with that film. So when Branagh came to L.A. in 1990 with his theatre company (and then-wife Emma Thompson) to perform “King Lear” and “A Midsummer’s Night Dream” in repertory at the Ahmanson Theatre in downtown L.A., my wife and I were determined to score tickets—which we were fortunate to do for both shows. I have to admit my memories of the productions have dimmed with time—I mainly remember the use of real water for the rainstorm in “Lear”! 

The Spencer Tracy Award
After I graduated from UCLA, I worked there for several years. During this time, UCLA established the Spencer Tracy Award, its first recipient being actor William Hurt. I was a fan of Hurt from the very beginning of his career and, if not for the program I found in my files, forgot I had attended the ceremony for the award’s inaugural presentation in 1988. I’m fairly certain I attended next year’s presentation to Jimmy Stewart. Both events included sit-down interviews with the actors. (I don’t think it was for this award, but I recall seeing Gene Kelly at the same venue; I recall him joking that he just had to cross the street to accept the award since UCLA is adjacent to Bel-Air.)

Given UCLA’s location, I was fortunate to see many actors come in to speak and answer questions during noontime programs. At this stage there are more than I can remember, but these include Sean Penn (many of whom in the audience went to high school with him), Christopher Reeve, Joe Piscipo, and others.

I have many wonderful memories of outstanding live theater shows I’ve seen over the years. Among the best not mentioned above are a UCLA student theater production of “Medea." This was a controversial M.F.A. project that re-imagined the ancient Greek story as a star-crossed love story between Jason, an Israeli army officer, and Medea, a Palestinean, with the deux ex machina at the end of the production in the form of a helicopter, which was quite an impressive piece of stagecraft in the show; a production of “Macbeth” with a Mad Max-like production design; “Joseph and His Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat,” which I saw before the show was revived, re-vamped and expanded into its current popular incarnation; and “Mother Courage and Her Sons,” another Brecht production off-Broadway that I saw while in high school and still living in New York City. This was one of the first stage productions I ever saw, or at least one of the more adventurous ones that showed me the true power of theater when done compellingly and innovatively.

These productions are among the highlights of my life as a theater-goer and are a reminder that there is nothing quite as electrifying as a live theater production that hits on all cylinders.

A few more from my collection:


At right is a souvenir program I believe I inherited from my parents, for the film Camelot. I wonder if it's a collector's item?

By coincidence, I  have this same image hanging on my wall as a poster, from a gallery exhibition of the artist's movie poster work.


The souvenir program at left was from a showing of Kenneth Branagh's 1996 film, Hamlet, in 1996. I don't think I went to any special showing, but it was the week it opened, at a well known L.A. arthouse theater in West Los Angeles, so it may have been leftover from the premiere. I recall seeing Leonard Nimoy at the show! 
At right is the cover to a handsome, glossy program I got at a special showing of the film Grand Prix that I attended at the Academy of Motion Pictures Sciences earlier this year. The film was part of the Academy's annual 70mm festival. I only discovered the film relatively recently and blogged about it here, but it was a delight to see on the big screen. Better yet, several of the film's crew and stunt drivers took part in a Q&A, including actress Eva Marie Saint. (James Garner, too ill to attend, sent a nice message.)

It's nice to know that movie programs like this aren't a lost art!