Saturday, November 5, 2011

The Growing Virtues of Amazon Prime

Amazon's recent unveiling of the Kindle Owners' Lending Library adds greater value to Amazon Prime. Although there are limitations such as the six biggest publishers not being involved and only Kindle devices supporting it, this is a nice benefit to add to Amazon Prime membership beyond previously available benefits such as free two-day shipping, discounted one-day shipping, and free streaming of select movies and television shows.

Saturday, October 22, 2011

Discover Cash Over

One of the great (and I think often unappreciated or misunderstood or even feared) benefits of the Discover Card is the Discover Cash Over benefit (not to be confused with Discover Card's much better known Cashback Bonus benefit). As the web page focused on this benefit currently states, a card holder can "get cash over your purchases and save time and money." The page adds, "Take care of two errands at once. And pay no fee."

I find this benefit better than using an ATM. There are no fees and it can be used while shopping at one of numerous participating stores. The page advertises these benefits: "Avoid fees - No transaction fee. No ATM fee. No bank fee." The page also points out that the "cash over" counts as a normal purchase. Thus, if you request $20 cash over (amounts available are typically in $20 increments), it is as if you purchased an additional item at that store for $20.

Not every merchant that accepts Discover Card as payment participates in the Cash Over benefit. The list of participating merchants is available on the benefit's page. At the time of this writing, these participating merchants include Kroger (King Soopers and City Market in Colorado) and Wal-Mart.

There are no fees associated with this benefit, but it is important to keep in mind that carrying a balance (not paying it off each month) means paying interest on the cash over just as interest is paid on the purchase price of goods and services. If you do pay off your Discover Card balance each month, this service is totally free!

This is a very convenient benefit of the Discover Card. It is handy to be able to make purchases and access cash in a single stop without paying any banking fees. It is actually easier than using an ATM machine if you're going to purchase items at one of the participating merchants anyway. With some big banks starting to increase fees for debit card use, this benefit might look even more attractive.

Monday, September 5, 2011


Lauer-Krauts is a small restaurant in Brighton, Colorado, specializing in German-Russian cuisine. It has been featured on The Food Network episode From Kraut to Couscous with Guy Fieri (as can be seen here). The kraut burger is every bit as tasty as it looks in the video footage and in these photographs. I'm not the biggest fan of kraut in general, but the mild kraut combined with the numerous other tasty ingredients and the fresh-basked bread make the Lauer Kraut burger particularly tasty.

The krautburger is defined on the web site as "a German Russian pastry pocket filled with hamburger, cabbage, onion and Lauer-Kraut." There are other items on the menu, but it's difficult for me imagine not having a krautburger when visiting Lauer-Krauts.

The inside of the restaurant is very small (three tables) and many people eat outside or take the food with them. They are open for breakfast and lunch Tuesday through Saturday and closed on some holidays. If you're not in the Denver metropolitan area, you might try making your own krautburger, but for people in the Denver area, it might be easier to simply visit Lauer-Krauts and enjoy the benefits of their hard work.

Saturday, August 13, 2011

Candlelight Dinner Playhouse (and "Big River")

Based on recommendations from multiple friends, we decided to go see Big River: The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn at the Candlelight Dinner Playhouse in Johnstown, Colorado. We are very happy that we took their recommendations seriously.

Tara and I have always enjoyed seeing plays at The Denver Center for the Performing Arts (DCPA) in theaters such the Buell Theatre, the Space Theatre, The Stage Theatre, and the Ricketson Theatre. Although we're always pleased with the performances there, there are times, especially after a long work week, when the idea of driving in rush hour into Denver and then dealing with parking issues and needing to get into and out of dinner in time for the show sound unappealing.

One of the advantages of a dinner theater is the ability to have dinner and see the show in the same location. This can definitely be a more relaxing experience without needing to worry about finishing dinner and getting to the theater in time for the show. There are some excellent restaurants in the Denver area near the DCPA, so it is possible to have a really nice dinner before seeing the shows. We liked several things about the Candlelight Dinner Playhouse including the fact that we enjoyed the food and the show.

The Candlelight Dinner Playhouse sells tickets for dinner and show or for show only. We enjoyed their food enough that I doubt we'd go there for the show only, but it is an option. The tickets that include dinner and show cover one entree (there are several to choose from) along with a salad. Optional items that can be purchased above this base price include appetizer, premium entrees, desserts, and soft drinks or other beverages. People who purchase show only tickets can choose to purchase appetizers, desserts, and beverages as well. We really liked getting our dessert at intermission and I think it would be difficult to watch everyone else enjoying desserts at intermission without having one for myself. I recommend purchasing dessert in either case (ticket and show or show only)!

The entree and other choices appear to be selected to fit with the theme of the show. For example, as the Dining page currently indicates, there was a "Big River Menu" when we went. This menu shows the five entrees one can choose from as part of the dinner and show package as well as the optional entree upgrades, appetizers, and desserts. The menu also shows choices that fit well with the show experience in the deep South.

Our main waiter for the evening happened to be the actor (Keith Hatten) who plays Jim in Big River. He has a great, deep singing voice and it was nice to be able to talk to him briefly before the show and during the intermission. The entire staff was friendly and we enjoyed the friendly atmosphere.

The Candlelight Dinner Playhouse is a modern facility and this was noticeable. The seating areas are spacious (one of the advantages of watching the show from where one eats is the necessary extra space afforded the theater-goer) and the newness and cleanliness of the building were appreciated. I could not tell from the photograph I had seen of it how large it is. According to the website, it houses 280 theater-goers and is a $6 million building. A better perspective of the building is available via the virtual tour. Even the restrooms are very nice.

The parking at Candlelight Playhouse is free. It appeared that overflow parking on the street was necessary, but this is a street that's not very busy and it should be relatively easy to park on it if necessary.

Others' reviews of Candlelight Dinner Playhouse and of their Big River production have also been enthusiastic and positive. Bryan VanDriel (The Greeley Tribune), wrote in "Theater Review: Candlelight’s ‘Big River’ cast blows the roof off every performance":
“Big River” marks the beginning of Candlelight’s fourth season, and I’ve been able to see every one of the shows so far. The company’s built a reputation for outstanding food and high quality entertainment, and this is the best show yet.

Other reviews include the recently released Mile High Critics review and Big River rolls into Northern Colorado’s Candlelight Dinner Playhouse.

I wholeheartedly agree with VanDriel's assessment of the acting and singing abilities of some of the main cast members in "Big River." He articulates this better than I can do by describing why some of the main characters (Mark Lively as Huck Finn, Keith Hatten as Jim, Dominique Simmons as Alice, and others) are played so well. Lively presents an energetic, imaginative, and mischievous Huck Finn we picture when we read Twain's writing. Lively's singing, especially with Lively on "Muddy Water" and "River in the Rain," produces significant dramatic effect. I think I wasn't the only one who also welcomed any opportunity to hear Simmons' gospel-inspired singing. The rest of the cast was very good as well and the actors playing the Duke (Brian Burron) and the King (Scott Severtson) captured Twain's well-known comedic portions side well, which helped to keep the very serious subjects being covered in this play from becoming too weighty. Because of the great performances, Candlelight Dinner Playhouse's production of "Big River" delivers important reminders and lessons while entertaining at the same time.

Candlelight Dinner Playhouse's location in Johnstown, Colorado, puts it within reasonable driving distance of Denver, Fort Collins, Greeley, and even Cheyenne. We felt it was well worth the drive. We enjoyed the food, the acting, and the overall experience immensely. The "Big River" production comes to a close in less than two weeks.

Monday, June 20, 2011

Taking Chance: Too Good to be a Television Movie

The HBO Films movie Taking Chance is a movie that most people would be likely to categorize as understated and this description would be meant in a good way. The Internet Movie Database categorizes this 2009 movie under television, but it did premiere at the Sundance Film Festival. Inspired by actual events, this drama centers on Lieutenant Colonel Mike Strobl (USMC) accompanying the remains of Marine Chance Phelps back to his home in Wyoming. The movie is touching, but one of its most endearing features is the restraint shown in the making of the film.

I have liked several movies with Kevin Bacon (Apollo 13 and A Few Good Men for example), but this is one of his best performances. He plays a restrained Marine who, along with the audience, is continually surprised at his reception as he makes his way across the United States. Not only is Bacon's acting intentionally restrained to powerful effect, but the movie itself is somewhat restrained. It does not take a stand for or against the war in which Chance Phelps was killed, but instead focuses on the reaction of everyday residents of the United States as they learn what Bacon's character's assignment is.

Because the movie does not focus on the nature of the war itself or on opinions of the war itself, the film is able to concentrate on the process that is undertaken to return a soldier's remains to his hometown and on the human side of this process. Regarding this process, the IMDB page for Taking Chance states:
The Defense Department had banned virtually all media coverage of deceased vets returning home since the 1991 Gulf War until April 2009. But the military offered advice and assistance, providing Taking Chance's film crew with a rarely viewed but painstakingly accurate account of the care and protocol bestowed upon the nation's fallen warriors.

Some reviewers of "Taking Chance" have found political motive in it, but I think those reviewers are generally missing the point and are reading far more into its motivations than is there. In my opinion, this movie does not glorify war, but instead demonstrates peoples' natural inclination to honor those willing to make the ultimate sacrifice for something they believe in. Indeed the movie has been viewed favorably by a wide variety of reviewers (both formal critics and informal everyday folks) who have seen it. rates "Taking Chance" as 76 (out of 100 and in the green category representing "generally favorable reviews"). Rotten Tomatoes's review of Taking Chance (which cites 2008 for the movie's release year) has "no consensus yet" for the critics' reviews because there are only six reviews (with 50% positive and 50% negative), but there are over 3000 audience ratings that average 4 out of 5 (83% approval). With nearly 6000 votes on IMDB, "Taking Chance" has a rating of 7.3 out of 10 as of this writing.

I have two broad categories of "really good movies." One category is the "really good movie" that I watch repeatedly because I like it so much. These are often anything but intellectual and I watch them simply for entertainment. These are movies like Men in Black, Fletch, The Empire Strike Back, Raiders of the Lost Ark, and Inception.

The second category of "really good movie" is the movie that I am pleasantly surprised by and am really glad I saw once because of its impact on me and what it taught me, but often I don't watch them frequently after that. Movies like Schindler's List and Life is Beautiful are examples of this category.

For me, "Taking Chance" is in the second category: I was very pleasantly surprised with how engaging this movie is despite its understated nature and deliberately gentle pace. That being stated, it is not the type of movie I plan to watch repeatedly. It had huge effect the first time I saw it, but I prefer relaxing movies (often comedies) for repeated viewing and "Taking Chance" is just too deep for that.

Saturday, June 18, 2011

Exit Glacier Lodge

On a recent trip to southeast Alaska and the Inside Passage, I had the good fortune of stumbling upon the Exit Glacier Lodge in Seward, Alaska. After being in the confined quarters of a cruise ship's stateroom, it was nice to have much more room in the spacious rooms in the Exit Glacier Lodge.

The two-level Exit Glacier Lodge is probably best categorized as a bed and breakfast featuring private bathrooms in each of its 15 rooms. Having access to free high-speed wireless internet was nice and we really enjoyed the location (bottom of Exit Glacier Road near Seward Highway) and the quiet of the place. The beds were comfortable and we slept well. The location is not only obviously convenient to the Exit Glacier, but is also convenient to downtown Seward.

The breakfast provided in the morning included waffles made as we came down to breakfast along with other items often associated with continental breakfast. The party I was with particularly enjoyed the strawberry-covered waffles and pieces of watermelon.

The rooms we were in (the Deluxe) did not have air conditioning, but this is likely rarely needed in a location like Seward because of the cool air readily available by opening the window. Indeed, I have found that many accommodations in the Colorado mountain towns have similarly not had air conditioning for the same reason.

The Exit Glacier Lodge is larger than it appears in the photographs of it available on the web because the front of it with the entrance that is featured in the photographs is the short side of the rectangular-shaped building. The rooms run from the lobby down the long side of the rectangle shape to the end and are more spacious than many of the bed and breakfasts that I have stayed at previously. The Accommodations at the Exit Glacier Lodge page shows several photographs of the lodge, of its lobby area, and of its rooms.

We had a change in plans toward the end of our Alaska vacation that led to us needing to stay a night in Seward. Because of the late changes, many of the first lodging options returned first from a Google search were already unavailable for our large group. However, all turned out well as we really enjoyed our stay at the Exit Glacier Lodge. Some of the other Seward-area accommodations are likely more popular for those who don't have access to private transportation, but we will make Exit Glacier Lodge our first choice if we are ever fortunate enough to visit Seward again.

Video Games at Redbox

NetFlix and lower-priced DVD/Blu-ray purchase prices are not the only forces that have contributed to the demise of Blockbuster and other video stores. A major contributing factor besides mail-order videos, cheaper videos for purchase, and the ability to stream video is the most direct competitor of all: the ability to rent a video on a last-second impulse locally and cheaply. Redbox (and some lesser known competitors) have taken this niche by storm. If one wants breadth of choices, it's difficult to beat NetFlix. If one wants a current release now, it's difficult to beat Redbox. If one wants an older release now, there is a decent chance its available on NetFlix streaming. If one likes a movie well enough to keep it for a while, one can purchase it for a relatively low price in many cases. In fact, I have purchased DVDs and Blu-rays of popular movies for less money than Blockbuster used to force us to pay to rent a video for a few days!

With the recent announcement that Redbox now rents games, I'm curious to see how they will impact that market. An obvious positive of this is that a person can try out games before purchasing to see if he or she really wants to buy the game. Additionally, some games are fun for a short amount of time and a rental may cover the length of that time. Redbox isn't the first to rent out video games, but the promise of easy access to the latest games at convenient locations may be what makes this different.

Perhaps the biggest thing that contributed to Redbox's rapid adoption was the pricing scheme of $1 per night for as many nights as a customer had the DVD. This was simple to understand and allowed the customer to choose how long to hold the video and pay for that amount of time. One of the many things I did not like about Blockbuster was the justification of exorbitant rental rates because of the number of days they were rented for. I always felt like there should be a cheaper rental rate for fewer days because I often knew I'd watch a video that night and be finished with it. Redbox provided cheap, daily rate that seems more fair to most of us and allows the customer to customize their cost. A similar approach to video game rentals via Redbox could make this equally successful.

It appears that at the present time, at least for the particular Redbox I tried via online reservation, that the cost of the game rental will be $2 per day (with "24 hours" being the initial day). Two dollars is a price that even the paperboy would like. A two dollar initial "investment" in a game whose value seems questionable or which has received widely mixed reviews may be well worth it if it helps avoid purchasing a game for $40 or $50 that isn't satisfying. The $2 price per day is also not bad if one is fairly certain he or she only wants to play the game for a day or two or a weekend. In such a case, especially for newer games, it is likely to be far more expensive to purchase a game for just a few days use, even when considering the resale value of it afterward.

It appears that Redbox will carry video games for the three major consoles: Wii, XBox 360, and PlayStation 3. I expect it to be a popular service, though it may not have quite the impact on the gaming industry that Redbox has contributed to in the movie industry.

Saturday, May 28, 2011

Microsoft Safety Scanner and Security Essentials

I decided to download and run the freely available Microsoft Safety Scanner after reading Gregg Keizer's ComputerWorld article New malware scanner finds 5% of Windows PCs infected. There is a very large button at the top of the page that one can click on to download the Microsoft Safety Scanner, but there is much more on the page. Roughly half of the lower portion of the page contains links and details about Microsoft's Security Essentials product ("a no-cost service for genuine Windows PCs"). The other half of the lower portion of the page contains links on Windows security and links on the most common threats found on PCs.

The Microsoft Safety Scanner page states that this application is designed to run alongside already installed antivirus software. In other words, Norton, McAfee, or other software does not need to be uninstalled or disabled to use Microsoft Safety Scanner. After downloading Microsoft Safety Scanner, I only ran the "Quick Scan" option because that covers the most common threats and doesn't take very long. There is also a "Full Scan" option available, but it is warned that this might take "several hours" on some computers.

The next image shows the Quick Scan progress being made. By the way, don't trust the green progress bar. When it reaches the end, it simply starts over again. Reaching the end doesn't necessarily mean you're almost finished.

I was pleased to see that my currently installed protection software appears to be doing its job. The results of the Microsoft Safety Scanner were what I was hoping for: I'm one of the ~95% (at least on that particular PC) free of the identified issues.

These results show not only that my currently installed software protection package is working, but also demonstrate that the Microsoft Safety Scanner was able to run without conflict while I had my currently installed software running. In fact, my currently installed software protection suite notified me on the download of Microsoft Safety Scanner that it was a safe download (not malware).

Because I still have a paid subscription to a competing suite of protection software installed on all of my Windows-based computers, I am not downloading Security Essentials at this time. However, the sentence (quoted from Microsoft Safety Scanner page) "Genuine Windows customers get a complimentary subscription to Microsoft Security Essentials, the award-winning antivirus software that helps you protect your PC." regarding Security Essentials is worth considering when it's time to renew my subscriptions, especially for my older PCs.

My recommendation is that anyone with a Windows PC should download and run the freely available Microsoft Safety Scanner to ensure that they are not part of the ~5% affected. This product downloads and runs quickly (if Quick Scan option is selected) and is advertised to not conflict with existing software. A subset of these people may also be interested in downloading Microsoft Security Essentials as a permanent computer protection package. Unlike Microsoft Safety Scanner, Microsoft Security Essentials is NOT designed to run with other antivirus software and that other software should be uninstalled before installing Microsoft Security Essentials.

As difficult as it is to believe, I know several people with Windows-based PCs that do not have antivirus or protection software installed on their computers or who have allowed subscriptions to updates to installed protection software to expire for many months or even years. For these people in particular, downloading and installing Security Essentials seems like a good idea. I believe downloading and running the "temporary" (10 days) Microsoft Safety Scanner is probably a good idea for all people running Windows-based PCs.

I've helped several people clean up their systems after allowing protection software to get significantly out-of-date or after not having any protection software installed at all. It would definitely have been easier on them and they might have even avoided loss of their computers for hours or days and loss of data had they had software like Security Essentials installed. As a side note, I have also found helpful freely available tools such as McAfee Labs Stinger (or other McAfee free removal tools), Norton free tools, and information on viruses, malware, and spamware that is available on many of the protection software vendors' sites.


I believe that all Windows users should have protection software installed on their machine, particularly if they access the Internet (including downloading e-mail messages). The freely available Microsoft Safety Scanner should be run by all Windows users because it is fairly quick to run and does not compete with installed protection software. Windows users who don't have any protection software installed should install either Security Essentials or some other protection software immediately.