Moro Rock and The General Sherman Tree at Sequoia National Park

Over spring break the family and I took a trip to Sequoia National Park, where I saw the world’s largest tree (by volume) and climbed to the top of Moro Rock. Here are some pictures.

The General Sherman Tree, while not the tallest tree in the world (I think that honor goes to a Redwood in Northern California that is something like 400 feet tall), the General Sherman Sequoia is the most massive tree in the world. Interesting fact, sequoias don’t die of old age; they have very shallow root systems and once they get too big for the roots and soil to hold them in place, they fall over. The tree then dries out and dies from lack of water.

The trail up Moro Rock, while not physically difficult, is rather daunting. Although there are stairs with handrails all the way up, if you were to slip and fall through the railing you would plunge to your death, and there would be nothing you could do to prevent it. I do not recommend this trail for children unless you want to scare the bejeezus out of them and then carry them up and then back down the narrow, steep stairs. I saw entirely too many children on this walk, and every one of them was clinging to their respective parent for dear life. Beautiful views, easy walk, not for kids.

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Why the Veronica Mars Kickstarter is a Very Bad Idea

Veronica Mars BannerLet me start by saying I have no opinion about the show Veronica Mars. While I have been aware of the show, I have never watched an episode. I enjoy the star of the show, Kristen Bell, and coincidentally, have in the past very much enjoyed the work of the actor who plays her father Enrico Colantoni in Just Shoot Me and Galaxy Quest. That being said, Veronica Mars is a show I just never got around to.

When I heard about the Kickstarter to fund a Veronica Mars feature film, while listening to the excellent podcast Monkey in the Cage, alarms immediately started to go off. To my limited knowledge of Kickstarter, the majority of projects being funded are for a small niche of the populace, and will not generate a lot of revenue after the project is completed. A Veronica Mars movie, however, is another beast entirely.

According to Nielsen, during its final season (2006-2007) Veronica Mars finished with a rating of 1.1/3. This means that during a showing of Veronica Mars, 1.1% of all households with a television (approximately 1.2 million of the 112 million total), and 3% of all television households with a television on at the time, were watching Veronica Mars. If we assume that a household contains on average 1.5 people, then Veronica Mars had a fan base of 1.8 million people. I believe that assuming half of those 1.8 million people will pay to see the movie in one form or another is reasonable. Additionally, since Veronica Mars left the air, Kristen Bell has expanded her fan base with movies and TV appearances, meaning  the movie will probably bring in viewers who have never heard of Veronica Mars prior to the movie. As a comparison, Kristen Bell’s 2010 film “When in Rome”, which was overwhelmingly panned by reviewers, still grossed $32 million. There is definitely money to be made.

The kickstarter is asking for 2 million dollars, and at the time of this writing, it had amassed nearly 3.8 million dollars with 3 weeks still to go. A budget of 2 million (or 3.8) is miniscule by today’s standards. Two million is enough to get the movie made, and not much else. If special effects and the number of locations are kept to a minimum, a movie can be filmed and edited fairly cheaply. For these types of films, where you accrue the most costs is marketing; it doesn’t matter how good a film is if no one knows about it. For an independent film, the best way to market the film is to not market it at all. I know this contradicts the previous sentence, but follow me. If a filmmaker uses their entire budget to produce a quality movie to completion, so all it needs is to be marketed and distributed, you may be able to convince a major studio to market and distribute the film for you. You share your profits with the studio, and everyone is happy. The Veronica Mars television show was produced in cooperation with Warner Bros, so they’re the obvious choice to distribute the film.

So now the question arises, if a movie has a fan base (profits) already in place, a major studio to distribute the film,  the star’s husband (Dax Shepard) has a production company, and the star has a net worth of 8 million dollars meaning she could fund the entire project herself if she really wanted to, why hasn’t the movie been already made? Why go to kickstarter? My answer is Serenity.

Firefly BannerThe film based on the show Firefly grossed 25 million in theatres. However, it cost 39 million to make and 10 million to market. The movie didn’t make it into the red for the studio until DVD sales. My guess is Warner Bros is unwilling to risk funds producing a Veronica Mars movie, but has told the show if the movie gets made, they’ll distribute it. Serenity may have only grossed 25 million in theatres, but it grossed 39 million from DVD sales, rentals, and TV licensing. Veronica Mars fans are not as rabid (probably)as Firefly fans, but Veronica Mars likely has broader appeal (not Sci-Fi, larger female audience), so I am going to assume that the Veronica Mars film can expect similar figures, while also costing more than 30 million less to make. That means after ticket sales, DVD’s and rentals/TV, the Veronica Mars film can potentially gross 59 million dollars, while only costing 4 million to make. If Warner Bros spends an additional 10 million in marketing/distribution, that is still a gross of 45 million dollars. As an investor in the production of the film, shouldn’t you get some of that money?

For the larger tiers in the Kickstarter for Veronica Mars, you can be an extra, get personalized voicemail/videomail messages from the stars, get tickets to the premieres, and other similar goodies. For the big investor ($10,000), you get a one-line speaking part in the film as a waiter (plus you have to fly yourself to the shoot at an additional cost). Nowhere does it allow the investors of the film to recoup their money or earn a profit. For $10,000 I should get whatever prizes are already offered, and I should get my $10,000 back when the film is profitable.  A film production normally has to hire the extras and bit players at a cost, but why bother when they’ll pay you absurd amounts of money?

Wanna be in a movie kid? That'll be $8,000

Wanna be in a movie kid? That’ll be $10,000

Under normal circumstances, the producer finds funding for a film. Entities invest in the film by giving money to the project, and the investors see a return once the movie makes a profit. It’s kind of like the stock market; you buy shares in a movie, and at some time in the future, they (hopefully) pay out. Now with Kickstarter, studios don’t have to worry about the money owed to the investors eating away at the profits, because there isn’t anything owed. All the risk and cost is taken away from the studio and given to society (kickstarter donators), but the studio still gets all the profit associated with that risk. This represents a huge shift in the way a studio finances a movie. Why go to banks and the like for financing when someone is more than willing to give you $8,000 to be an extra and name a character in the movie? The Veronica Mars kickstarter heralds the unraveling of a proven business model.  If this film makes anywhere close to the numbers I’ve projected, and the investors get none of that money, the investors have been screwed, plain and simple. And judging by how successful the kickstarter is, this isn’t an isolated incident. Shame on them.

*Author’s note: All the figures listed in this article have been culled from various sources on the internet and I cannot vouch for their validity

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Possible stories for Episode VII

Disney has purchased Lucasfilm for 4 billion in dollars and stock options, and is already moving towards filming Star Wars episodes 7-9, with episode 7 to be released in 2015. Disney has already shown with the purchase of Marvel that they are more than capable of using an existing property to create high quality movies that generate lots of revenue, so the purchase of Lucasfilm makes sense. That being said, the fact that really matters is that George Lucas is going to take a step back and let a new generation of writers and filmmakers create the movies.

Episode 7 is already in the writing stages of development, and according to one article, it will continue the adventures of the cast from the original trilogy. I think that means they will recast the parts using younger actors (Ryan Gosling gets my vote for Han Solo) ala Star Trek.  As I am sure this would be successful and enjoyable, I find it unfortunate. I would prefer, at least at first, to see the original actors reprise their roles in an age appropriate story, which I will get to in a moment.

Let me begin my argument by stating that my favorite Star Wars film is The Empire Strikes Back. Not only for its visual beauty, but also because of the tragically accurate story of rebels being crushed by superior forces. The movie just works, and I believe a lot of that has to do with the fact that George Lucas didn’t direct it. George’s heavy-handedness in episodes 1-3 are what ruined the films for many moviegoers, and by agreeing to take a step down for these next films, he is acknowledging this.

There currently exists a massive expanded universe in the Star Wars novels, full of stories waiting to be adapted. I have read many, many novels (probably all of them up to the year 2010) and  here are my picks for the possible stories that might be adapted for movie treatments:

The Thrawn Trilogy by Timothy Zahn. These are the books that started the Star Wars books, and will probably be used in some way if they decide to go with younger actors.

It has been five years since Return of the Jedi, and the remnants of the Imperial Fleet have been marshaled by Grand Admiral Thrawn to strike back at the new Galactic Republic and retake what is theirs.

Pros: Direct connection to the previous films, especially since contingency plans Darth Vader had kept hidden come into play. Thrawn is the best type of villain in the sense you know he’s bad, but you root for him anyway. Luke must confront the dark-side and resist succumbing like his father before him.

Cons: Cloning facilities come into play, so it might feel too much like episodes 1-3. In the books defense, it was written 20 years ago, long before episode 1 came out.

The New Jedi Order series by several authors. This is the movie I want to see. This series and the one that follows it would be fantastic episodes 7-12. Not only would it allow the original actors to play their parts, it allows younger actors to take over the story pretty quickly and become the driving force.

It has been over 20 years since Return of the Jedi, and the Galactic Republic is thriving. A new generation of Jedi has been brought forth by Luke Skywalker and his Jedi Academy on Yavin 4, who have reclaimed their role as protectors of the galaxy. From outside the galaxy an unstoppable species arrives, the Yuuzhan Vong. Masters of genetic engineering, violent, viewing technology as blasphemy, and ready to cleanse the galaxy and take it as their own, they march towards Coruscant and complete victory. Worst thing? They can’t be felt in the Force.

Pros: This is a dark story. Whole planets are wiped out as standard procedure. The Yuuzhan Vong are a sadistic species who practice self-mutilation and torture. They view all other species as inferior and have no qualms with murder. They are evil. Being unseen in the Force, the Jedi are at a disadvantage the whole time, giving the movies a sense of desperation. The Vong use biological constructs for their ships/weapons, which would be visually stunning. The major players in the film are Han and Leia’s children along with the original cast, so Harrison Ford and the rest are about the right age to reprise their roles if they desired.  Would be awesome. Possible tagline “Not your grandma’s Star Wars”.

Cons: If done properly, this would be a very dark, sad, violent trilogy; basically everything that would make it fantastic.

Legacy of the Forceseries by several  authors. The follow up to New Jedi Order is the story that episodes 1-3 should have been. Someone deciding to take on the mantle of a Sith shouldn’t be because they had “scary visions of childbirth” like Anakin did in episode 3. It should be meaningful, and most importantly, should be something we would all consider doing if in the same situation. There are some spoilers in this portion of the summary, and I apologize for that.

The Yuuzhan Vong have finally been defeated. The damage done by their terraforming will take generations to undo. Jacen Solo, son of Han and Leia, has been to hell and back, and is determined to never let something like this happen again. Keeping his rank of Colonel earned during the war, Jacen becomes head of the Secret Police and begins using the law to amass power. An attempt on his daughter’s life confirms what he already knows: someone needs to take charge, and that someone is me.

Jaina, Jacen’s twin sister, has decided that she and she alone must destroy her brother. Who do you go to for help when you need to kill the second most dangerous man in the universe? The first most dangerous man in the universe; old man Boba Fett.

Pros: Boba Fett. A realistic tale of tragedy and someone falling to the darkside for all the right reasons. Also Boba Fett.

Cons: if Disney releases a movie every 3 years like they plan to, we wouldn’t be able to see this saga even begin until 2024.

So there’s my take on what I would like to see in the coming episodes. Any thoughts?

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Driving down memory lane at waste disposal

Recently I made a trip out to the local landfill to throw out an old entertainment center. As I drove up the hill to the landfill entrance, a strong sense of nostalgia/deja vu came over me,as it always does in this instance. Seeing the heavy equipment crawl over the myriad serpentine paths of the landscape reminded me of my previous life as a geologist.

Prior to the housing collapse of the mid-2000’s, I worked for a geotechnical consulting firm. Our primary goals were site investigations prior to any construction (groundwater elevation, faulting, soil composition, that sort of thing), and quality control during construction.Once the equipment started moving, my main task was as an observer and advocate for the client, ensuring the construction crews followed our recommendations as closely as feasibly possible. Being the perpetual fly on the wall, I was able to truly appreciate the delicate ballet that is heavy equipment.

Whenever I had previously tried to envision how construction works, I assumed that crews would start at one edge of the worksite and work their way methodically across until they reached the other side, finishing the job. This isn’t even close to what happens in reality. A successful construction crew does two things: keeps every piece of equipment moving at all times, and has no net change in soil volume on a jobsite. A potential job site is originally hilly terrain to some degree in most cases. A crew will use the dirt from the higher areas to fill in the lower areas, creating a flat, usable work surface for buildings. Because of this, dozers, loaders, scrapers and the like are constantly moving from one side of the work site to another; removing dirt and then depositing it elsewhere. Roads traversing the site that you have been using for weeks will randomly disappear one day, leading to you driving around lost, or worse stuck somewhere having to be fished out by a dozer.

Turning a piece of land into a location worthy of a building may take weeks, months, or even years in some cases. For 90% of the project, it appears the equipment is pushing dirt around in seemingly random sequences with complete disregard for the finished product. Then one day, the random piles of soil coalesce into a marvelous testament to our ability to bend the earth to our will, and the plans you had thought left for dead are now realized in three dimensions. It is a truly marvelous thing to behold.

Driving onto the landfill proper, my pickup felt almost eager, hungry for the chance to once again utilize the BF Goodrich All-Terrain tires that haven’t seen any real use in 5 years. Being able to step out of my truck wearing my bright orange shirt (so as not to get squished by a dozer) onto a living, breathing job site felt wonderful: the dozers pushing dirt, the excavators digging holes, the compactors compacting; the smell of dirt reaffirming that you are in fact outside and not constrained to an office building. But all too briefly, it was over. My entertainment center was soon to be buried along with other refuse, the landfill was in my rearview mirror, and my all-terrain tires were once again on asphalt.

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The changing face of ‘Community’

There are many shows I watch regularly on TV (too many probably). Community on NBC is one of the few shows I truly  look forward to. Community sits on my DVR no longer than a day. Community is creative, hilarious, and has been an absolute joy to watch these past few years. Sadly, Community has never been strong in the ratings, and has always been on the verge of cancellation. To my relief, it was recently announced that Community has been renewed for a fourth season, and will return in the fall. Sadly, a few days ago,  Dan Harmon, who is the creator/executive producer/driving force behind Community was let go.

My initial reaction was shock and anger. How, how could they renew a series then tell the most important person behind said show to get lost? It made no sense. Now, Dan Harmon has a reputation for being difficult to work with, but Community is still his baby, so he should be allowed to stay, no? Apparently, the situation was much worse than expected, as summarized in this article from vulture.com.

At Wondercon in March, I was able to attend a Community panel. 3 of the actors from the show, a writer, and Dan Harmon were on the panel. Everyone involved adored Harmon, and it was clear that they loved their jobs. It was obvious to everyone in the room that Dan Harmon IS Community. However, Harmon violated one of the cardinal rules of employment, and that is to keep your bosses happy (I speak from experience). From a business standpoint, I understand why his contract was not renewed, and even agree with the decision. I love Community, and wish Dan Harmon could remain, but being a show that’s perpetually on the bubble, the decision makes sense. So what does it mean for the future?

If the majority of the writers are retained, the transition should be seamless. Supposedly Harmon is to have an “advisory” role, and this could be a boon. James Patterson manages to crank out a novel with his name somewhere on the cover nearly every month. I’m convinced he writes the first and last chapters, then the individual who’s name also appears on the cnver (usually in smaller print) writes the remainder. A similar method could be used for Community: Harmon provides a general outline for the season’s story arc and the writers fill in the rest. The writers already know and love the characters, and should be able to make some tweaks to keep the higher-ups happy without losing the soul of the show. I have high hopes.

Admittedly, this season was a bit wacky, even by the show’s standards. The video game episode from last week, which I found delectable, could be a bit of a turn off for the casual viewer. (Quick side note: did anyone else notice that Jeff’s avatar moved and jumped exactly like MegaMan? Small things like that are icing on an already marvelous cake.) Likely this next season will pull back a bit on the zaniness, and focus on building relationships between the characters to bring in more viewers. If the ratings can get to an acceptable level, maybe in seasons 5 and 6 we’ll get more themed episodes.

The business of television is awful. If you’re not a medical show or cop drama, life is tough. Many great shows get cancelled before they get through the first season, and Community was very nearly one of them. Dan Harmon was given 3 seasons of good faith by NBC, and his failure to compromise cost him his job. I applaud him for standing behind his convictions, but the business of business is business, and hopefully, fingers crossed, we will get our 6 seasons and a movie. I will watch Community in the fall on Fridays at 8:30 ( or rather my DVR will), and can’t wait for the return of one of the best second-tier characters ever: Starburns. Or as he prefers to be called, Alex.

(Another side note: I hypothesize that one of the reasons that Community had such bad ratings this year is because it had to compete with Big Bang Theory on CBS, another show I watch. They’ve moved the show to Friday, which hasn’t been a viable time slot since the Olsen twins were in diapers, and this is supposedly a nail in the coffin. But aren’t DVR’s a regular thing now? Do time slots really matter that much? Am I wrong in this thinking? *quick google search later* In 2011, DVR usage only accounted for 8% of all TV viewing, so yes, time slots still matter)

Here’s wishing Dan Harmon the best of luck; I thank him for creating such an original masterful show; and here’s to the future, may it be as great as the past 3 seasons were.

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Why reading comicbooks is ultimately a futile effort

I had been writing a lengthy post when it got deleted, and I don’t feel like rewriting it. Sorry.

Here are the nuts and bolts: Comicbooks can be beautiful engaging stories. Taken singly, or in small groups, they are prime examples of how good a story can be. Viewed as a whole collective, reflecting on the decades of history most current titles have, comicbooks are a waste of time. Nothing ever truly changes. Characters rarely, if at all, stay dead, so there is no tension to build drama. Sweeping changes meant to evolve a character/characters rarely stick. DC comics recently rebooted their major titles, effectively letting them retell stories from two generations ago and calling it progress. It’s just frustrating and pointless, especially considering the monetary investment necessary to stay current with even a few character’s titles. *Sigh*

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Who I want to see in the next Avengers movie

Next Friday, the surefire smash success The Avengers hits theaters. The current roster is Iron Man, Thor, Hawkeye, Black Widow, Captain America, and The Hulk. For those who don’t/didn’t read the Avengers comic,  nearly every hero in the Marvel universe has been a member of the Avengers at some time in history. This leaves the choices for new cast members wide open, and here are the characters I would most like to see in the future sequels.

Spiderman: I thought they would have used Tobey Maguire as Spiderman this time around, but he’s too old. Traditionally, Spiderman is one of the younger team members. Spiderman also fills the role of the joker in the group, cracking wise to lower the tension when every fight is life and death. Hopefully Marvel has this in mind and will use the new Spiderman from the reboot movie due out later this year.

Scarlet Witch: The daughter od Magneto, the reality-altering hex powers of the Scarlet Witch screwed up the Marvel universe something bad a few years ago in the comic books (House of M storyline). However, prior to that, Scarlet Witch had been a member of the Avengers for decades. The ability to shape reality to your whim could have powerful story implications of truly epic proportions.

Vision: an android with the ability to phase through walls, Vision is another Avenger that has been around since nearly the beginning. In the comic canon, Vision and Scarlet Witch fall in love and get married, so the romantic storyline can be an added plot point.

Wonderman: Possibly my favorite hero of the Marvel universe, Wonderman has invulnerability and super strength, and later gained flight. That being said, the strongman role is currently filled by Hulk, but I believe Wonderman could add some interesting tension to the group. Wonderman loves Scarlet Witch, and Vision’s AI was based off scans of Wonderman’s brain. This leads Wonderman, kind of rightly so, to believe that given the chance, Scarlet Witch would love him in return. Forever forced to play second fiddle to his android “brother”, Wonderman could be a compelling character.

US Agent: developed as a replacement for Captain America, US Agent has the same skill set, shield, etc. It would be entertaining seeing Cap and Agent trying to out-captain each other.

Wolverine: Of course Wolverine, he’s Wolverine for pete’s sake. This would help us erase  X-Men Origins: Wolverine from our memories, and would remind us of how great Wolverine is. As long as Hugh Jackman keeps taking whatever youth serum he has to maintain his ridiculous physique, Wolverine should be a lock for the sequel.

Iron Fist: He knows kung fu, he killed a dragon by punching it in the heart to earn the power of the Iron Fist, and he has the coolest costume ever. Nuff said.

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