Monday, June 29, 2015

Norway Chess and The Grand Chess Tour

  The Norway Chess tournament concluded last week. This was the first leg of the newly inaugurated ‘Grand Chess Tour’ which links the Norway Chess Classic, Sinquefield Cup, and London Chess Classic with 8 of the top 10 players in the world (as of January 2015), a prize fund of $300,000 per tournament, and an additional $150,000 prize fund to the top three finishers of the tour using a 10-9-8…1 point system with bonus points awarded to the first and second place finishers of each tournament.

  The first tournament of the tour highlighted the strengths and weaknesses of the concept. Having almost all the top players in the world in the same tournament led to interest and anticipation for each round's competition. Despite the misfortune of an out of sorts World Champion Magnus Carlsen losing four of his nine games, the prospect of a compelling finish was in sight. Veselin Topalov had a point and a half lead in the next to last round when he lost to Anish Giri. Former world champion Viswanathan Anand won his game to pull to within a half point of Topalov and was due to play Topalov with the Black pieces in the last round.

  This would have been compelling if it was the last round of a World Championship match or if there was a large prize on the line. As it worked out there was a difference of 3 grand tour points and $25,000 on the line. Topalov played a safe game to attempt to gain a draw to secure first place while Anand was content with to clinch second place and the result of their 'game' was an 18 move draw that barely lasted a half hour. Compare the articles before the round to the articles after the round and it seemed like the air had been let out of a balloon.

  The tour allows each tournament to select one wild card player. Norway Chess decided to have a local player selected from a qualifying tournament which was won by Grandmaster Jan Ludwig Hammer, who proceeded to finish last despite beating World Champion Carlsen in the last round. Because Norway Chess decided to have a local player as their wild card (they had a local GM in the first two editions of this tournament) and the tour restricts participation to the top ranked players in the world Sergey Karjakin (a top 15 player and winner of the first two Norway Chess Classics) was not able to defend his title.

  The Grand Chess Tour’s leading spokesperson is former world champion Garry Kasparov, who made an unsuccessful attempt to win the presidency of the World Chess Federation (FIDE) earlier this year. A big winner in the Tour is the London Chess Classic which has not been able to consistently attract more than a handful of the worlds elite players and switched in format and number of players yearly since its inception in 2009, even becoming a 16 player rapid event for 2013.

  Kasparov has repeatedly stated that the Grand Chess Tour is not meant to compete with the FIDE World Championship and Candidates tournaments. I have my doubts since Kasparov’s previous attempts at chess organization (Grandmaster Chess Association and Players Chess Association) started with the same good intentions but soon morphed into an all-out power struggle with FIDE over the control of the World Chess Championship. Perhaps being 15 years removed from being the world champion has dulled Kasparov’s ambitions but his forays into Russian politics which started with Moscow protest against president/dictator/ pick your phrase Vladimir Putin and morphed into Wall Street Journal editorials urging at the least a Cold War and at the most a third World War give me pause. As currently constituted, the Grand Chess Tour looks to be on a collision course with the FIDE world championship cycle in the near future.

  In order to participate in this year’s Grand Chess Tour a player must commit to playing in all three events. If this requirement holds true next year when there are four events I wonder how Magnus Carlsen will feel about playing in four super tournaments as well as the defense of his world title. This same issue will face his challenger who will also have to compete in the Candidates tournament. It seems likely that many of the top 10 players in the world would pass at the small chance of winning the Candidates tournament and playing a match for the world championship for the guaranteed payouts of the Grand Chess Tour.

  Ultimately it will be Carlsen that determines the short term success of the Grand Chess Tour. The tour will be successful as long as he participates but he must also be more competitive than he was at Norway Chess. After Carlsen lost three of his first four games and it became clear that he was going to be a non-factor the tournament seemed to lose a lot of its appeal. Carlsen has given a boost to chess with his youth and meteoric rise the same way that Tiger Woods brought golf to a new level almost 15 years ago. Woods is five years removed from his public embarrassments and six years removed from his last major win and golf has struggled to reclaim the excitement that has left with Woods’ success. Carlsen is the face of chess and everyone that wants to make money off the sport is trying to cash in on his popularity but if he fails to contend in these tournaments I doubt the Grand Chess Tour will retain any of its current excitement.

Friday, June 26, 2015

TV Review - The Last Ship Season 2 Premiere

One of my favorite post-apocalyptic shows is back for the summer!

  Since season 5 of ‘The Walking Dead’ finished in March I’ve had no post-apocalyptic drama until TNT unveiled the two hour season 2 premiere of ‘The Last Ship’ on Sunday night. In Season 1 the crew of the USS Nathan James traveled from the Arctic Circle to the Mediterranean, Guantanamo Bay, and the jungles of Central America gathering supplies to keep alive and materials to make the cure for a deadly virus that has wiped out over 80% of the world’s population. The ship makes it to Baltimore at the end of season to find a reasonable facsimile of civilization led by former Presidential Policy Board member Amy Granderson (the mother of one of the crew of the Nathan James).

  The crew dispenses the cure to Granderson and her top aides only to find out that Granderson’s civilization is powered by the bodies of the sick that are lured into a stadium where they are promised medical attention but are instead euthanized and shipped to the power plant to be burned. While the ships’ commander Captain Thomas Chandler takes a crew to retrieve his family from the stadium (finding his children and father while learning that his wife has succumbed to the virus) Granderson’s troopers have taken control of the Nathan James at gunpoint.

  I wrote last year that ‘The Last Ship’ reminds me a lot of the original ‘Star Trek’ and the season two premiere did little to change my mind. While not an alien civilization, post-apocalypse Baltimore is alien indeed. Granderson wants the cure not to dispense but to control who gets cured and cement her hold on power within the gleaming corporate headquarters of Avocet where she has set up her new society.

  The people of Avocet will do anything to get their hands on the cure and are looking for the key ingredient (the primordial strain) to replicate the cure so they won’t need to negotiate with chief scientist Dr. Rachel Scott. When they think Scott’s assistant Quincy Tophet knows where the vial of primordial strain is, one of Granderson’s troopers order Quincy to be shot up with adrenaline so he can be made to talk even though Quincy has suffered a near fatal gunshot wound and is in critical condition. Tophet’s wife is held at gunpoint which convinces Quincy to rip out his stiches and bleed to death because he doesn’t know where the strain was hidden. The head Avocet scientist is undeterred and when he finds out one of the ship’s crew is pregnant has her brought to the lab in order to extract the stem cells from her fetus in order to replicate the cure.

  Luckily the crew of the Nathan James find some rebel allies and with their help our heroes shut down the killing stadium, turn off the power plant, destroy Avocet, and take back their ship with the only casualties being Quincy and six other sailors who are the equivalent of the red shirted members of the USS Enterprise that typically met their demise at the beginning of Star Trek episodes. One of the high points of the premiere was Executive Officer Slattery taking control of the ship’s comm center and his glee as they eradicate the ship’s invaders. Slattery gets in some action himself as he brawls with the head of Granderson’s troopers, ending the fight when he buries an ax in his enemy’s chest. The season premiere was two hours of nearly non-stop action. The only slow spots were when Captain Chandler and crew infiltrate the power plant and Chandler’s family hides out in an abandoned house until they are forced to fight when a snitch tells some Avocet guards about them in return for some rations. Even these slow spots had a sense of anticipation of quick erupting action at any moment. The remaining 10 episodes tease battles at sea, the return of the ‘Patient Zero’ scientist that started the virus in the first place, and a group of survivors called ‘The Chosen’ that are naturally immune to the virus.

  With Captain Chandler now a widower the stage is set for the reprisal of another of the staple themes of the original Star Trek which was how nearly every alien female who appeared on the show would fall in love with Captain James T. Kirk. Season one of The Last Ship was light in the romance department with a liaison between two of the ships members the only break in the otherwise regimented lifestyle of a Navy Ship but I expect that to change in Season two.

  Despite my enthusiasm for the season premiere, the ratings were lower than any of last year’s episodes, which also aired on Sunday nights. Every episode of season one had an audience of at least 4 million viewers while the season 2 premiere had less than three million and even lost out to a show on the Discover network called 'Naked and Afraid'. Unless the show does well in the new 'Live Plus' metric of DVR/Netflix/Amazon/Hulu views this bodes poorly for the prospect of a season three. I’ll make sure to enjoy this season of ‘The Last Ship’ and my post-apocalyptic Sunday plate will be full for the foreseeable future with the last season of ‘Falling Skies’ starting next week and the premiere of ‘Fear The Walking Dead’ in August. I don’t know if ‘Fear The Walking Dead’ will be on Sundays but that night does seem to be the preferred day for post-apocalyptic TV in order to make us feel at least a little better about heading to work on Mondays in a non-apocalyptic world.

Monday, June 22, 2015

Beagle Privilege

It's time to once again check in with Daisy and Baxter - America's favorite beagle bloggers.
This week our intrepid beagles have a special guest!

Hi Everybody! It’s Daisy…  …and Baxter here with another blog! I’m sure glad basketball season is over, Daisy.  Finally! If I had to read any more about Hank’s predictions I don’t know what I’d do.  It’s not like Hank’s predictions are any good - he only gets about half of them right.  I think we could have just as many right as Hank does by guessing. 

Mr. T the turtle is living with us and thanks to Daisy I got an owie on my ear...

Anyway, I’m sure our readers have had enough of basketball talk for a few years so what should we talk about today, Daisy?  We can talk about how we got in a fight on our walk and I bit your ear.  I bled so much that Hank and Kathy had to seal my ear up with super glue – but I don’t want to talk about that.  If I was a boy dog I wouldn’t want to talk about how my sister bit my ear all bloody either.  How about if we talk about the new beagle we saw talking a walk last Sunday?  The new beagle is cute but we’re much cuter. We haven’t met yet and don’t even know its name. There's the turtle Matt and Kathy took home from the pond…  His name is Mr. T. He’s pretty small but once he gets big he’ll go back to the pond. He crawls around but he’s not especially interesting. 

It’s so difficult to come up with new things to write about, Baxter!  I guess that’s why Hank goes on and on writing about going to Okoboji or who’s going to win a basketball game. We could talk about our walks, I guess.  We just blogged about our walks two months ago. Life’s so difficult sometimes.  Life’s so difficult! Better get a raft in case I cry a flash flood.  Harry? What are you doing in our blog?  Yeah! Why don’t you look in your mirror and leave us alone. We’re trying to think of something to write for our blog.  It's hard enough without some cockatiel interrupting us! 

No matter where I turn I have to listen to these two moan... 

Why don’t you two write about how privileged you are? None of the other animals get to go out for walks and treats except you.  What does that have to do with anything?   We get to go out for walks because we’re so much fun. You would fly away if anyone tried to walk you.  Kathy used to let Sneezy the cat go in the backyard until she started running away.  Could you imagine taking Oreo the rabbit for a walk? Or putting a leash on Mr. T the turtle? Hee Hee Hee…  What are you so upset about, Harry? You get out of your cage every day for a few hours. 

I barely got out my cage one day last week. I went over by the TV to look around and Kathy said I was going to chew the wires and put me in my cage.  Well Harry, you really shouldn’t be over by the television. You have a very nice play area with perches.  Easy for you to say – you have the run of the house and you get to go outside all the time while even when I do get out of my cage for a few hours I have to hang around my play area.  If you know you’re not supposed to do something and you do it anyway then you get punished. Let’s face it Harry – you’re a delinquent.  That’s right. And delinquents deserve what they get! 

We don't think it's privilege to go out for walks... If I get too close to the wires it's back to the cage for me.

That’s what I mean. I didn’t chew any wires but I got treated as if I did! You two are so privileged you don’t even know it. I get locked up for just being near a wire but you two get to go out for walks and treats even though you bite each other and everyone else, scrounge for food, and bark and howl all the time.  There are some things you just don’t understand about beagles, Harry. For one thing, beagles are very smart and the most literate of dogs.  And we don’t really mean to be bad - we can’t help ourselves sometimes. We’re just very passionate, you know. I was really sad when I bit your friend Mr. Feathers.  Another thing you may not know about beagles is that most people love us and want to pet us. Think of all the people that would be sad if we didn’t get outside to be petted.  You’re just the beneficiaries of ‘beagle privilege’. The culture says that beagles get to do whatever they want with little or no consequences. Meanwhile I get treated like a criminal just because I’m hanging near the television wires. 

Harry, I don’t understand a thing you’re saying. Where do you get this stuff from?  You two aren’t the only literate ones in this household. I sit on Hank’s shoulder when he reads the news on his computer and I read the front of the newspaper when Kathy reads the inside. That’s where I learned that privileges of the majority are taken for granted because it’s ingrained in society while minorities get little or no privileges. Of course the privileged majority accepts it as the natural order.  I don’t think we’re very privileged, Harry. If I was privileged, I’d be eating beef sticks until I burst! YUM!!!  And we’d certainly have a lot more Pinot Grigio and Chianti infused Salami from Aldi in the house!  Hank hasn’t brought us any broasted chicken from Haley’s in months. That doesn’t sound like privilege to me.  Last Sunday it rained. We didn’t take a morning walk and we didn’t get any beef stick treats. I was so sad. I think a privileged beagle wouldn’t have to go on a walk in order to get a beef stick treat.  Sigh…There’s no talking to you two…. 

You know Harry if you don’t like the living conditions here why don’t you go back where you came from!  Hank told us all about how a co-worker of his gave you and Mr. Feathers away because you were too noisy.   Maybe your old owners will take you back and you’ll be happier there.  I’d like to go to my native Australia where cockatiels are prized pets. You two are the noisiest animals I’ve ever seen but I don’t see anyone giving you away.  Beagles are British but we’re happy right here with Hank and Kathy.  That’s right – we aren’t going anywhere. 

Well, if I can’t beat the system I guess I’ll join it.  What does that mean?  From now on I’m trans-species self-identifying myself as a beagle. When’s our next walk for a beef stick?  You can’t just say you’re a beagle and get to go on walks for beef sticks!  Why not? People self-identify themselves with other genders and races all the time. The government accepts self-identification on their census so I officially self-identify as a beagle! I can’t wait for my first walk!  You can’t come on a walk with us! You don’t even have a leash  . I’m a beagle trapped in a cockatiel's body. Look - I’m wagging my tail feathers. Listen to me howl. Aw-ooooooo… Aw-ooooooo… 

It's time to release my inner beagle!  I understand that Harry self identifies as a beagle but it doesn't mean we have to like it...

This is insane! What’s the world coming to?  Well Baxter – it’s really none of our business if Harry wants to be a beagle. Let’s look on the bright side.  What bright side? All the other dogs and people will laugh at us if we have to take a walk with a cockatiel.  I’m not a cockatiel! I’m a beagle. Aw-ooooooo…  SHUT UP, HARRY!  Baxter, calm down and think about this rationally. Hank won’t get beef sticks at Kum & Go and Casey’s because they raised their prices to three for two dollars but if there are three beagles in the house…  We can get Kum & Go and Casey’s beef sticks again! YUM! I love Kum & Go and Casey’s beef sticks. YUM!!  And Harry only eats bird seed, millet spray, and popcorn so we’ll each get an extra half a beef stick!  OH BOY!! I’d love more beef stick treats! YUM!! C’mon Harry, let’s get ready for our walk! You can use my old leash.  Aw-ooooooo… 

Could this be the future of our beef stick walks?  Aw-ooooooo… 

Friday, June 19, 2015

Keys to Success

80 percent of success is just showing up” ~ Woody Allen

  The NBA season finished Tuesday night with the Warriors’ 105-97 win over the undermanned Cleveland Cavaliers. The Cavaliers have been installed as the favorites to win next years’ championship at 3-1 odds. I am less optimistic. As great as LeBron James was this postseason he will be a year older with more wear and tear on his body next year, there is no guarantee that Kyrie Irving will be the same player after he recovers from his knee tendonitis and fractured kneecap this summer, Kevin Love still doesn’t have a role on the team, and role players like Tristan Thompson and Matthew Dellavedova are as likely to regress as they are to find another level.

  I recovered $120 mythical dollars on the last game of the finals when the Warriors covered the 3.5 spread for $100 and James only scored 32 points which was under the 36.5 number for another $20. My last game successes trimmed my Finals losses to $90 mythical dollars and left me $60 on the plus side for the playoffs and plus $215 for the entire NBA season. The final tally is below.

Regular SeasonRecord+/-
Against spread14-15-$250
Money Line4-0+$400
Series Picks
Round 12-2-$10
Round 22-1+$100
Conference Finals
Against spread0-3-$325
Over Under5-1+$390
Total Conference Finals5-4+$65
NBA Finals
Game 1+$97.5
Game 2-$130
Game 3-$121.50
Game 4+$77
Game 5-$133
Game 6+$120
Finals Game Bets3-3-1-$30
Finals Prop Bets2-5-$60
Total NBA Finals*-$90
Total Playoffs*12-10-1+$65
Total NBA Season*30-25-1+$215
*Prop bets excluded from game totals

  I was very pleased with the traffic this blog generated from the basketball predictions. That and the relative success of my predictions convinced me to resurrect my basketball prediction program from almost three decades ago for next season. My current software project is adding the ability for players to enter my fall chess tournaments via my website. That should be done by late July which will leave August and September to set up a basketball database, data entry program, and predictive algorithms. I’m interested in seeing how much easier it will be to write the program using SQL and C# than it was to originally come up with these concepts in Dbase III which was state of the art in 1987.

   A key to picking basketball games successfully is to understand that if you lose 40% of the time you are awesome. It was hard to keep making predictions early on in the regular season when I was over $500 in the red. I knew that the sample size was small so I was able to keep my head and not make too many risky catch-up bets. I finally found the idea of picking playoff teams at home against non-playoff teams and picking against teams on the road for the second game of back to back games and close the season on a winning tear.

  The playoffs were a different matter. I was able to skate by picking the series winners in the first two rounds. When my posts started getting picked up by search engines I felt the need to pick each game of the conference finals and finals. Picking each game is quite difficult since not only did I have to come up with a reasoned prediction I also had to write a few hundred words on a pretty tight deadline. I would have liked to stay away from the early games in each series in order to see how they were shaking out before making informed choices but didn’t feel I had that luxury. I managed to come close to breaking even in all my playoff bets except in the Finals where the key to my failure was making silly prop bets that were little more than guesswork.

  Since the company I work for has moved another 10 miles further than the 50+ miles I used to drive I’ve been lucky enough to be able to work from home a few days a week. On Wednesday I drove in to work for a morning meeting. I parked in the company parking lot and took my computer out of my car. Normally I’d also bring in my bag with my fruit and extra stuff like spare headphones and chargers but since I had to drive to the meeting in a couple of hours I grabbed my bag of fruit out of my work bag and was at my cubicle at 8am sharp.

  I worked and munched on an apple and some raspberries until 10:30. My meeting was at 11 and it only took between 10 and 15 minutes to get to the customers’ office but I wanted to show up early for the meeting. I packed up my computer and reached into my pocket for my car keys and my car keys weren’t there. So I looked in all my pockets and my car keys weren’t there either. So I searched all over my cubicle and my keys weren’t there either!

  I asked at the front desk but no one had turned in a set of keys. I checked the men’s room and break room and there were no keys there either. I thought that maybe I locked my keys into my car so I went to my car. My keys weren’t in the ignition but I had left a door unlocked so I opened the door and took a look around.

  My Chevy Spark is pretty tiny despite its four door sedan status and I was able to search it in a few seconds but there were no keys. It was getting very close to the meeting time so I went back in the office and got a co-worker to give me a ride. On the ride I called Kathy to warn her that she may have to bring me my spare set of keys. The meeting went smoothly but I was pretty distracted trying to think of where my car keys were and I wish I had a dime for every time I checked my pockets hoping to find my keys.

  Once the meeting was over a customer drove me back to the office and I spent another 15 minutes checking my car, the bathroom, the breakroom, the front desk, and my cubicle, my computer bag, and bag of fruit and still had no keys. It was 1pm and I tried to put the keys (or lack thereof) out of my mind and went back to work.

  I was going to call Kathy at 2 to let her know if I needed her to bring me the spare set of car keys so at 1:40 I checked my pockets and bag one more time and looked one more time in my cubicle. My cubicle is 4 by 8 feet and everything is rooted to the floor except this vertical file cabinet that is no more than a half inch off the ground. I had given the tiny space under the cabinet a look or two already but this time I laid down on the floor and looked all the way under this file cabinet. I could see the light from the next cubicle except for this one spot. I couldn’t tell what was hiding the light and couldn’t reach it so I got a ruler from my desk and was barely able to reel the object in and what do you know? The object was my keys!

  I can only assume my keys fell out of my pocket and I kicked them under the file cabinet without realizing it. I was kicking myself a little for not checking way under the cabinet earlier but that feeling soon gave way to the joy I felt at having my keys back and not having to ask Kathy to drive 2 and a half hours to bring me a spare key. I was able to drive home and realized that a key to success is having your keys in the first place.

Tuesday, June 16, 2015

NBA Finals Predictions - Game 6

  I was so close to going at least 2-1 on Sunday’s picks for Game 5 of the NBA Finals. I had Cavaliers getting 8 points ($115-100), the under of 195 points ($115-100) and Stephen Curry to get less than 28 points ($23-20). With less than eight minutes left the Cavaliers had an 80-79 lead and I was looking to get the cover and the under with the only dark cloud being Curry’s 25 points. Curry hit a three pointer just a few seconds later, the Cavaliers fell apart down the stretch (outscored 25-11), and my Finals losses ballooned from $76 to $199 with the over under push of 195 points leaving me with two losses and a tie. Even though these bets are for entertainment purposes only I have to admit it stings a little to watch even mythical cash flow through my fingers in four short minutes.

  The Cavaliers abandoned their big lineup in Game 5 and were surprisingly competitive playing the Warriors at their own game before spitting the bit late in the fourth quarter. Logic says that with only two days rest the shorthanded Cavaliers will be too exhausted to keep up with the Warriors but the Warriors are also playing a short rotation (regular center Andrew Bogut has played only three minutes the last two games) and may be equally exhausted.

  The Warriors are 3.5 point favorites and the over/under has nudged down a point to 194 according to The Warriors may have finally found the key to getting Curry loose against The Cavaliers defense and when Curry starts scoring the rest of the team follows. Is there anything that can stop the Warriors? One thing is the NBA and their corporate sponsors desire to have a 7th game which will likely be the most watched basketball game of all time. Another thing is LeBron James, although his heroics only helped keep the game close for 44 minutes on Sunday.

  I see the Warriors keeping to their small ball lineup and the Cavaliers mixing things up with their big front line combining with their own version of small ball in an attempt to keep their players more rested. After considering all the variables I have to think the Warriors have regained their rhythm and will win the championship and cover the 3.5 points. I’m still slightly ahead for the entire NBA season so I’ll pass on doubling my wager to catch up for the finals and make the straight bet of $110 to win $100 on the Warriors cover and for my prop bet I’ll bet $22 to win $20 that LeBron James will try to save his energy for the fourth quarter and score less than the line of 36.5 points. As usual, these picks are for entertainment purposes only with no actual money being wagered.