Thursday, October 20, 2016

Everything Old is New Again

This song was released weeks before John Lennon's assassination in 1980 and never fails to leave me more than a little depressed.

   Less than 10 days after my friend Bill passed away at the age of 96 I had to confront my own advancing age when I turned 56 the Saturday before last. I didn't really do much confronting because I don’t spend a lot of time considering how old I am. I’m older than some, not as old as others, and that’s about the extent of my thoughts on the subject. One thing I’ve gotten better at as I’ve gotten older is not wasting time. I'm gotten quick to hang up the phone and close the doors on salespeople and I patronize businesses largely based on how little time I have to spend to get what I want. I even try to save time on social media. I like using Facebook but when one of my ‘Facebook friends’ starts posting items or opinions that I find disturbing or people that annoy me start popping up in my feed because of their comments in these posts I just click the button to not show this person's posts in my feed. I save time by not getting annoyed or disturbed and there's a lot less to look at that way too.

  And what do I do with all this time I save by not wasting it? Play one minute chess of course! Not only is a game of chess with each player having one minute to make all their moves incredible fun it also doesn't cost nearly as much time as a game where both sides have 90 minutes for all their moves PLUS an extra 30 seconds for each move like when I played at the Twin Ports tournament in Duluth a couple of months ago. The last time I wrote about my one minute chess escapades on the Internet Chess Club was in March of 2015 when I set a personal high rating at one minute chess of 1619. I then set my sights on trying to better my personal best ICC 3 minute rating set in 2010. That attempt was unsuccessful and on November 1st I was back playing 1 minute chess on the Internet Chess Club. I proceeded to drop my first 6 games to lower my rating exactly 100 points to 1519 and my quest for a new 1 minute rating high was on.

  I was made no progress on getting my one minute high until late September when I suddenly started winning a lot of games on time. This was a sure sign that my normally crummy Mediacom internet service was better than usual. I took full advantage of my blazingly fast internet in this game against NAVARRO-GO that pushed my rating over 1600 for the first time in 18 months.
pgn4web chessboards courtesy of

  In addition to winning games on time I also won a few well played games like this one against NC3-4Me.

  Having fast internet and playing well is a great combination to get a high online rating because in addition to the games I win by outplaying my opponent I also get plenty of undeserved wins when my opponents run out of time in winning positions. Both factors combined in my game against macuco.

  I thought that this game would have given me my new high rating but it left me at 1619, exactly where I was on March 10, 2015. Two days later I woke up on my birthday and since it was a Saturday Kathy and I took Daisy and Baxter on a long 5am walk to the Casey’s for coffee and a beef stick treat. We were home by 6 and I spent some time watching chess on ICC with Harry the cockatiel and then I hit the one minute button.

  A good game that I could have won with more time and could have lost with crummier internet. The draw was good enough to give me the solitary rating point I needed to get to get to 1620 for a new personal best after 1 year, 6 months, 28 days, and 7,372 one minute games.

19 months in the making but well worth the wait!

  After setting my new personal best I headed to Grimes, Iowa to run the latest of my youth chess tournaments. I used to hold the tournaments at St. Francis of Assisi school in West Des Moines but a funny thing happened on the way to summer last spring. After spending a year working with some private students I came up with the idea of a twice a month Saturday afternoon chess class/club with a lesson, homework, and chess play without the pressure of a tournament. I went to the parish office to reserve dates and the person who never gave me any trouble about getting dates for my tournaments told me how busy the summers were with weddings and other functions. When I mentioned I only needed a small classroom and that I was going to make this activity free for St. Francis students while charging everyone else the person who never gave me any trouble about getting dates for my tournaments told me it was “parish policy not to have the facilities used for activities that charged fees.” I said I didn’t see how that could be the policy since it was no secret that I charged entry fees for my tournaments and besides every activity I’ve ever seen at the gym next to my tournaments had a cash box. Then the person who never gave me any trouble about getting dates for my tournaments told me that the parish was doing an audit and I needed to fill out a form for a background check (I had already had one when I started at St. Francis) and my helpers needed to fill out the forms also (even though my helpers were parents paying thousands of dollars a year to have their children attend the school). That made things a little more clear in my mind and I figured that something happened that was being hushed up that made the parish less interested in outside activities. I wrote to the school principal and head of the PTA about my summer activity idea and didn’t waste any more time thinking about it.

  That was in May and I never heard back from anyone. I had an agreement to coach the chess club at St. Francis for free and in return use the facilities for chess tournaments. Given the ‘fees’ policy I felt I could coach at St. Francis and have free tournaments (meaning I needed sponsors), not coach at St. Francis and not have tournaments, or coach at St. Francis for free and still not have the tournaments. As much as I enjoyed working with the kids at St. Francis the reason for my coaching there was to have a place to hold tournaments. I didn’t want to spend time looking for sponsors so in mid-July I wrote to St. Francis to let them know I wouldn’t be available to coach their chess club given their ‘fees policy’. St. Francis then wrote me back to tell me there was no policy about charging fees and that I could still have the tournaments if I would coach the chess club, I gave it some thought but ultimately decided not to continue. I think that once the people who never gave me any trouble about getting dates for my tournaments start making policies as a way to say no it wasn't going to change because I happened to be the beneficiary of some political infighting – I would just have to deal with more made-up policies in the future.

  I told the parents of my students and anyone who asked that I wasn’t planning on having tournaments but within a couple of weeks I had inquiries about holding tournaments in the fall at different sites. One of my students’ parents had an in with the Grimes Community Center and we easily settled on three dates in the fall as a trial run. I normally wouldn’t have had a tournament on my birthday but it just so happened that it was also National Chess Day. I’ve always tried to have a tournament on National Chess Day so I had the tournament on my birthday. It also helped that having the tournaments so early in the month will keep me away from Thanksgiving and Christmas weekends where a lot of players tend to be traveling.

  So after setting my personal best in one minute chess on the Internet Chess Club I opened some of my birthday presents one of which included a pack of Old Trapper beef stick treats from (and for) Baxter and Daisy and headed 60 miles southwest to Grimes, Iowa to run my first chess tournament there. The Community Center is located in the middle of Grimes (a suburb of West Des Moines with 8,500 people) in an old school. The tournament room has space for at least 50 players and there is plenty of room for parents to hang out either in the tournament room or a nearby cafeteria. I can see a long run at the Grimes Community Center. The middle school is starting a chess club which should provide a base of players. The only problem I can see is that even though the Community Center is located just 7 miles away from St. Francis, West Des Moines chess parents tend to not travel outside their own neighborhoods. But that isn’t really my problem and certainly not worth spending any time thinking about.

A great new tournament location in Grimes!

  The tournament itself was successful with 28 players over the day and everyone seemed to have a good time, including me. I hadn’t run a youth tournament in six months and forgot how much fun they are. I also forgot how much energy it takes. I got home at 5, did my after tournament stuff, walked my beagles, and gave my now 56 year old body a well-deserved nap. A few months after saying goodbye to a chess association of six years and ten days after going to my oldest friend's funeral (oldest in terms of age, not in terms of how long we were friends), I have a brand new high one minute rating and a brand new place to hold youth chess tournaments. My best birthday presents were getting new beginnings to take the place of some old endings...

This song was also released weeks before Lennon's assassination yet never fails to encourage me.
A fitting song to commemorate turning the page to 56 years old!

Thursday, October 13, 2016

TV Review - Fear The Walking Dead Season 2


Season 2 of 'Fear The Walking Dead' saw our band of zombie apocalypse survivors sailing to Mexico!

  While TNT’s ‘The Last Ship’ was finishing it’s 12 week run this summer I was posed a Sunday night viewing dilemma – whether to watch the end of ‘The Last Ship’ or switch my Sunday night post-apocalyptic viewing to the second half of season 2 of AMC’s ‘Fear the Walking Dead’. FWTD is the ‘West Coast’ version of the AMC’s hit “The Walking Dead’ Combined the two series now provide over half a year of Sunday night zombie apocalypse viewing. The series originally promised to show the beginnings of the zombie apocalypse which amounted to a few episodes of street riots and a failed attempt at martial law as the authorities tried to contain the zombie outbreak and by the end of the six episode first season society had broken down into a free for all.

  The main characters of FWTD is the power couple Travis Manawa and Madison Clark who form a modern family with Clark’s children Nick and Alicia along with Travis’s son Chris (all from previous marraiges). The group is joined by con man Victor Strand and Central American militia man Reuben Salazar and his daughter Ophelia. Season two starts with our group of survivors fleeing Los Angeles on Strand’s yacht name The Abigail minutes before the military bomb California in hopes of containing the outbreak.

  The first five episodes of season two take place with our group aboard the Abigail. This was a refreshing change as the original series has never been set on the water. The main antagonists are a group of pirates that were alerted to the Abigail when the lonely Alicia gives away their location in her talks with a ‘friend’ she meets on the ship’s radio. Along the way the group encounters a family living in a secluded inlet. While snooping around the family’s home Nick finds a batch of suicide pills. He puts the pills away but the youngest of the family sees the snooping and eats a pill thinking it is candy. Naturally she dies, turned into a zombie and eats more family members while our group escapes to sea. The Abigail is then boarded by the pirate ship but is rescued by a group of men who work for Thomas Abigail, the owner of the ship and Stand’s lover.

There were a few land excursions and unexpected stops along the way...

  After being rescued, our group heads to Abigail’s estate in Mexico which is run by Cecilia, the former housekeeper. The compound is well run with a working farm and plenty to eat. But instead of being happy to have somewhere save to live, our group attempts to impose their morality on the compound in typical ‘Ugly American’ fashion. The main point of contention is Cecilia’s refusal to kill the zombies, believing they still contain the souls of the living and that their zombie state is just a passing from the current life to the next one. The zombies are kept in the compound cellar, are fed the occasional meal of stray dog, and receive visits from their non-zombie relatives.

  The tension is exacerbated when Chris leaves the compound after what seems to be a failed attempt to kill Madison and Alicia and is followed by Travis. Everything comes to a head when Thomas Abigail receives a zombie bite and is dying. At first Stand decides to kill himself so he can be with his lover in the zombie cellar but at the moment of truth decides to live and shoots Abigail in the head. When Cecelia convinces Nick that the zombies still are vessels of the living, Madison goes off the deep end and kills Cecilia by locking her in the cellar to be eaten by zombies. Then Daniel Salazar gives the zombies a gasoline bath and sets them on fire which destroys the compound, splitting up the group for the second half of the season as Travis is AWOL with Chris and Nick leaves the group with disgust after losing the compound home after only two episodes.

  I found the first half of FTWD’s second season very entertaining. The tension of the chase at sea mixed with excursions on land gave each episode an appealing sense of danger. The compound episodes looked promising with the take of zombiehood as passing from one state of living to another in an ongoing spiritual journey. But then the wheels spun off as many of our main characters became unglued and went way out of character. Chris starts the season upset at Travis’s mercy killing of his infected mother but almost instantaneously becomes a psychopath standing over sleeping Alicia and Madison brandishing a knife before running away. Madison needs a place for her family to stay and has one in the compound until she locks the major domo in the cellar to be eaten. Did she really think that she would be allowed to stay after murdering the matriarch? We never find out because Daniel goes from being the hard-edged realist of the group to a raving lunatic that starts seeing visions of his dead wife and slashing the compound residents before setting fire to the entire compound. It was a disappointing end to a promising start to the half season.

Having found a safe haven our cast of survivors can't help but meddle!

  Things picked up in the second half of the season after a two month break as we are introduced to four separate bands of survivors. Nick ends up in the Colonia, a small neighborhood in Tijuana that barricades themselves with a walker-moat and is led by Alejandro the pharmacist who leads the group in a spiritual fervor, having seemingly survived a zombie bite. Madison, Stand, Alicia, and Ophelia find a resort hotel with two factions of survivors and somehow Madison leads them to work together and clear the hotel of zombies by luring them into the waters of the Pacific off a long pier. Travis and Chris are on their own when the encounter a band of young American men who are trying to scavenge their way back to America but will kill anyone who gets in their way including members of the band who get sick (so they won’t turn into zombies). The fourth group is well armed community that runs the local supermarket, trading guns, drugs, food, water, and medical supplies as necessary.

  Each group had its own storyline as they try to survive. Nick becomes a leader of the Colonia and manages to trade drugs for water at the supermarket. The hotel features a stunning flashback of a wedding with the father of the bride dying of a heart attack and eating the face off the bride as she attempts mouth to mouth resuscitation. One of young Americans gets shot in the leg when the group is stealing a farmer’s chickens. Travis tries to nurse him back to health and protects him from the rest of the group that wants to kill him before he dies and turns. The only problem is that Chris betrays Travis but wrestling him to the ground so his new friends can kill their injured comrade. Then Chris drives off with his friends leaving Travis behind.

  Except for the pieces at the hotel of the wedding and leading the zombies off the pier the second half of the season was pretty lackluster with minimal action, zombie or otherwise. With only three episodes left in the season I felt this show was not going to keep my attention but then the action picked up as the groups converged. Travis made his way to the hotel and was joined by the young Americans who admitted to killing Chris after a car accident. This made Travis lose his mind and he killed his son’s murderers with his bare hands but in the process also cause a serious injury to hotel mainstay Oscar. Travis was going to be banished from the hotel until Oscar dies at which point Madison, Travis, and Alicia have to fight their way out of the hotel. Madison had been to the supermarket where she heard about someone matching Nick’s description so they headed back to the supermarket to get more clues.

  There were very few clues at the supermarket because it had been abandoned with the armed gang heading to the Colonia to take it by force. Nick knew about the plan and evacuated the town leaving a dying Alejandro (who was bitten by a zombie and proved to have no immunity) to let a horde of zombies rush in behind the gang after they entered the deserted Colonia. Madison’s group arrives at the Colonia after the gang has been torn apart by the zombies and are well armed as they head to the border where they believe Nick has headed. Nick has indeed led the Colonia to the border where they are ambushed by an unknown armed group setting the stage for next year’s third season. Lost in the confusion are Stand who stayed behind at the hotel, Ophelia who made it to the border but has been captured by an unknown gunman, and Daniel who was last seen at the burning compound.

Travis has a slow burn but a high temperature!

  I like the premise of ‘Fear The Walking Dead’ and find the writing is top notch with very few of the 'plot device' coincidences that permeate the parent 'Walking Dead' show. One glaring device was in the season finale when Madison finds out the location of the Colonia from the driver's license of the (now dead) man at the supermarket who she heard mentioning Nick on her last visit. There were no maps at the supermarket, there was no evidence that the man lived in the Colonia before the zombie apocalypse or received his license after it, and the man and his family had been tortured for the location by the supermarket gang! Yet Madison and co. end up in the Colonia before the next commercial break!!

  Nevertheless I do find the show well acted, well written, and well made. Then why am I so lukewarm towards it? I think the show is focusing on the wrong characters. Madison becomes the main focus whenever she is involved in a plotline and has the annoying habit of imposing her morality on whatever group of survivors she encounters with the excuse of reuniting and protecting her family as justification. She locks the matriarch of the compound in the cellar to be eaten by zombies which leads to the destruction of the community. She lights the hotel sign at night in the hopes of giving her family a location to come to, not only wasting precious electricity but also giving away her location to every survivor and armed gang in the vicinity. She is relentlessly annoying. The character I like best is Travis who barely has a role in the show except to erupt in rage or plunge into despair. Travis has great survival instincts. He has fixed boats and cars, acted as a medic, and even wanted to eat the eggs and not the chickens on the farm. He would be the natural leader of the group but the show-runners barely give him any screen time. Another great character is Strand, the real estate con man who is used to living by his wits. He also barely had a role in season 2 and may be gone from the cast for good. I like how the show explored the idea of the zombies treated as wayward souls but the show is too disjointed for me to be fully engaged in these characters. When faced with the choice of which post-apocalyptic show to watch on Sunday nights I picked ‘The Last Ship’ and caught FTWD on the AMC web site later in the week. The show never gave me any reason to regret my decision although the slight uptick in action has given me reason to tune in once again next year.

Wednesday, October 5, 2016

The Man Who Lost Everything and Nothing At All

R.I.P. Bill 1920-2016 (I took the liberty of inserting some songs I listened to this week as I wrote this)

  My friend Bill died last Monday at the age of 96. I lived down the block from Bill for the 22 years I’ve lived in Iowa. For the first dozen or so years we only met on weekend mornings. I’d walk Queenie the beagle and her son Tuffy the half beagle to the Jiffy for beef stick treats and see Bill walking his Cairn Terrier Mindy on North Center Street. We would pet each other’s dogs and talk about the Hawkeyes in football or basketball season.

  I didn’t know how old Bill was but I knew he was quite a bit older than I was and a lot taller as well. Sometimes Kathy and I would see Bill drive his wife Marilyn and daughter Becky down the street or see them at the K-Mart but for many years we never talked except on our walks. I never saw Bill walking too much in the winter but when I’d see him in the spring he’d give Queenie a big pet and say “Good to see you made it through the winter, Queenie old girl!”

  In the summer when Kathy and I would walk Queenie and Tuffy on the weekend we’d see Bill, Marilyn, Becky, and Mindy on their front porch and visit with them for a few minutes. I’d see Bill on his riding lawn mower doing his lawn and the lawns on the two houses next to his. I asked him about it one time and he told me that he owned all three houses, with Becky living in half of one and renting out the rest.

  When Queenie and Tuffy passed away within weeks of each other in the fall of 2010, we didn’t see too much of Bill since we had no dogs to walk. The week after we got Daisy and Baxter in December of 2010 Kathy and I put them in our coats and walked down to visit Bill and Marilyn. They were as enamored by the little beagle pups as we were and we visited a lot more after that. When we saw them on the porch during the summer on our afternoon walks we would stop and visit sometimes for an hour or more.

  Less than a year after Queenie and Tuffy died, Mindy had a sudden illness and passed away. Bill, Marilyn, and Becky were devastated. It reminded me a lot of how I felt after losing Queenie and Tuffy but after a few weeks they got a new Cairn terrier named Abby and life continued. Seeing their joy with Abby and our joy with Daisy and Baxter helps me to realize that while the last few days, weeks, or months of a pet’s life is truly awful it’s the price to be paid for the happiness they bring.

  Soon after getting Abby, Bill started having blackouts. It was taken care of by medicine but his doctors thought it wasn’t a good idea for him to drive any more. I was worried for Bill because I remember when my grandpa hurt his back at the age of 96 and couldn’t drive his health deteriorated quickly and he was gone within weeks. That wasn’t Bill though. He wasn’t happy about not driving but still looked forward to having Becky take him and Marilyn to his favorite diner for lunch or out shopping.

  Later on Bill’s hips started hurting so much that he had a lot of trouble walking. He said one of his few regrets was not getting hip replacements in his 70’s because he was too old to have them done now. It was not only hard for him to walk – he also had trouble just getting comfortable in a chair. Bill rarely discussed his hips and when he did it was in a matter of fact tone without a hint of complaint.

  A couple of years ago Bill and Marilyn’s son Terry got sick and died. He was 71 so he wasn’t a young man by any means, just in comparison to his 90+ year old parents. When I was 11 my 18 year old sister died in an accident. My parents were never the same after that so I marveled at how Bill and Marilyn put aside their sadness and continued on even though I knew they had to be even more devastated then when Mindy died.

  Earlier this year Marilyn passed away at the age of 93. Kathy and I visited Bill that night. I remember him telling us that both he and Marilyn wanted to pass away first because neither wanted to live without each other. I figured Bill would have a lot of people visiting after Marilyn passed away but a couple of weeks later we were talking to Becky and she said that no one was visiting very much. I offered to hang out with Bill on Saturday afternoons if he wanted. Becky thought it would be OK so I started coming over on Saturdays when I wasn’t doing chess stuff.

  I’d walk down the block on Saturday afternoons and watch a few hours of TV with Bill. Bill loved golf so we would watch whatever golf tournament was on and after it ended watch the great old Superman TV shows from the 1950s and then the news. When the news was over Kathy would walk Daisy and Baxter down the block to get me. The beagles would say hi to Bill and we’d meet again the next week. Bill and I getting together on Saturday afternoons wasn’t some sort of ‘Tuesdays with Morrie’ deal. It was just two guys passing time together which is sometimes all you need in this world.

  While I was playing chess in Jackson in August, Kathy wrote me to tell me Bill had suffered a stroke. We went to see him in the hospital. He was doing fine but the stoke robbed him of his ability to speak except for the occasional word here and there. Bill recovered quickly and was soon sent to a rehab hospital in Ames. The hospital in Ames was just a few miles from where I am currently assigned so I went to visit Bill over my lunchtime. I was struck by how quickly Bill was getting his speech back, He went from words to phrases to occasional sentences and was back home in three weeks. Bill was a guy who just wouldn’t quit!

  Kathy and the beagles and I visited Bill on our evening walk the week before last. He was talking a little and in generally good spirits. Later that week Bill had a heart attack. It wasn’t fatal but he was so old that any procedure would kill him so Bill was sent home where he passed away after a week.

  I can’t say I knew Bill very well but I can say I liked him an awful lot and will miss him a lot also. Even though as I said Bill and I did not have this ‘Tuesdays with Morrie’ relationship where the older dying man imparts his lifetime of collected wisdom I did learn a lot from Bill because like Yogi Berra said "You can observe a lot by just watching." I watched Bill lose just about everything in this world. He lost his ability to drive, he lost the ability to walk, he lost his dog, he lost his only son, he lost his wife, he lost his ability to speak, and finally he lost the ability to get better. But Bill never lost himself. He was the same optimistic guy from the day I first met him until the day I last saw him and never changed – only his circumstances did. When my circumstances change for the worse I hope I can handle it half as well as Bill.

I'm not planning my funeral or anything but I could think of worse songs than this to be played at mine... See you later, Bill!

Thursday, September 29, 2016

The Prodigal Nightmare

  I got my first email address when I moved to Iowa in 1994. Even though it was only 22 years ago let me give you an idea about how different the world was. A phone call from Marshalltown, Iowa to 60 miles away Des Moines, Iowa was classified as a local toll call and cost 10 cents a minute. My wife calling her mother 120 miles away in Sumner, Iowa was classified as a long distance toll call and cost the same 20 cents a minute that I was charged to call my parents in New Jersey.

  The only way to access the internet was to dial into an internet service provider and the only way I could afford to sign up with an internet service provider was to find one with a local Marshalltown phone number so I wouldn’t be charged for each minute I was on the web. There as one and only one such service – Prodigy. I signed up for a prodigy account and received my first email address ( which I have kept from then to now.

  Over the years Prodigy was bought and sold a number of times. I’ve had my credit card billed by Prodigy, SBC Communications, SBC Yahoo, and finally AT&T Internet Services. During that time I’ve also had credit cards renewed or changed and managed to update my billing information either online or with a phone call. I don’t need to pay for a prodigy email account and haven’t needed to for many years but it has always been more of a hassle to change my email information for so many contacts and so many companies that it has always just been easier to keep paying for the service.

  I’d been paying for my prodigy email account with a State Farm credit card for the last few years when I got a new State Farm credit card in the mail with one of those EMV chips designed to prevent fraud until the technology gets hacked, causing new and improved security measures to be invented and implemented. The new card had the same number but a new expiration date so I had to once again change my billing information in order to keep my prodigy email service.

Clicking on the billing information link seemed easy enough...

...but entering the password proved to be an insurmountable challenge!

  The Sunday after I got my new card I went to my yahoo mail page and clicked on my ‘My Account’ link which brought me to the AT&T Yahoo account page where I clicked the ‘View Internet Billing Information’ page. I was brought to a page with my email address filled in and asked to enter my password. I entered my password and was told my password didn’t match the password in the database. After several failed efforts I clicked the ‘Forgot Password’ link and changed my password.

  Having changed my password, I entered it again on the AT&T page and was told that my password didn’t match the password in the database. At this point I gave up on trying to change my credit card information myself and clicked the support link which brought me to a page that said ‘The article you're looking for doesn't live here anymore.’ but that I could get help at their ‘Support Center’ link.

Unfortunately the support page had gone missing!

  I clicked the support center link which gave me a new page listing the AT&T products and asking me what I wanted help with. I clicked the ‘dial-up’ section and was brought to another page asking me for my account number. That was all good except I never had an account number. I’ve always identified myself with my email address or my credit card number. The account number field was numbers only so I couldn’t enter my email address. I tried to enter my credit card number but that wasn’t accepted either. At this point I found another link that pointed me to a 24/7 technical support hotline.

  I called the AT&T technical support hotline and was connected to an autobot that told me it could understand sentences and asked what I wanted help with. I said ‘change billing information’ and was asked to say or press my account number. I told the autobot my email address and was asked to say or press my account number. I asked to speak with a person. The autobot kept asking me questions about my account and after I finally got the idea to tell it I didn’t have an account was connected to a technical support department.

  The person on the support department line asked ‘How could they make my day better?’ and I explained that I just needed to change my billing information because my credit card information had changed. The support person asked me for my account number and I explained that I didn’t have one and that I had had my ‘’ email address that I was paying for every month using my credit card that was going to expire. The technical support person said that they had never head of a ‘prodigy’ email address and said they were going to put me on hold while they found someone who could ‘make my day better’. After 10 minutes I heard the friendly voice of the autobot telling me it could understand sentences and asking what I wanted help with. I hung up having lost a half hour I’ll never get back.

  On Monday I called the same support number from work and after dealing with the autobot for another 10 minutes got connected with the billing department (which was closed on the weekends). After another five minutes of explaining that I had no account number and that I had a prodigy email account through AT&T I was put on hold for another 10 minutes and connected to Pamela from the dial-up network division.

  Pamela was very nice and explained that the dial-up network division was so old that when AT&T last upgraded their website they did not include the older technologies like prodigy email and dial-up accounts. She told me that she would be happy to help me and gave me a direct number to call in case we got disconnected. She asked for my new credit card number and as I was giving it to her said she couldn’t hear me and that there must be something wrong with my phone. I knew Pamela couldn’t hear me but just in case I mentioned that of course it had to be my phone since AT&T had been so competent up to this point and are in the telephone business how could there be anything wrong with their phone system? Unfortunately my sarcasm was wasted as Pamela couldn’t hear me and I ended up hanging up.

  After lunch, I called the phone number Pamela gave me but got the same autobot and after 10 minutes of answering questions about not having an account number I got connected to the billing department once again. I asked for the dial-up network division directly and was quickly connected with Barb. Barb was very nice and apologized for my previous problems and also apologized because the dial-up network billing system was down and she wouldn’t be able to enter my new billing information online. What Barb did offer to do was take my credit card information and enter it once the system was back up. I asked if Barb would email me once this was done and she said sure.

  Feeling I had finally gotten my billing information upgraded I happily hung up the phone and waited for the email. I waited one day. Then I waited another day. I didn’t notice any abnormal activity on my credit card so on Thursday I called the AT&T phone number, mentally wrestled with the autobot, and 10 minutes later was talking to Tammy from the dial-up network division. I explained my problem and Tammy told me the system was back up and running and she would be able to enter my new billing information online at that moment. I gave Tammy the information and it was entered in no time. Tammy even gave me the network dial-up division’s direct number.

  The next day my credit card showed a charge for a few cents from AT&T Internet Services so I knew that after at least 3 hours on the phone my credit card information was updated and my ancient email account was safe for at least a few more years. I wanted to thank Tammy for being able to accomplish what the other AT&T service reps failed to do so I called the network dial-up division’s direct number to thank her. I got the autobot telling me it could understand sentences and asking what I wanted help with.

Thursday, September 22, 2016

21st Century NBA Basketball Prediction Program - Chance or Skill?

  After spending much of the summer in a fruitless attempt to get my chess game in shape for the tournaments in Duluth and Jackson I turned my attention to the upcoming professional basketball season and specifically my attempts to resuscitate my 30 year old basketball prediction program for the 21st century. I worked on this project last summer and thought I had a workable formula that predicted winners above the magical 52.4% break-even mark for the 2013-2014 and 2014-2015 seasons. After a promising start to the 2015-2016 season the formula stopped being successful and I finished the season making picks on my own and finished the season just short of the break-even line, losing $600 mythical dollars in the process.

  I started this year’s effort by creating a data table with different formulas combining the 16 variables I captured using the three seasons of NBA data I’ve assembled. I then created and ran a stored procedure to create the predictions for each season for each formula and save the results in my database. In addition to predicting winners, my software comes up with its own point spread which I compare to the published point spread. I summarize my results by how accurate my predictions are against the published line and how different my point spread is from the published spread. In a perfect world the bigger the difference between the two spreads the more correct my predictions will be.

  While running a query against my result summary I discovered that out of the hundreds of formulas, three gave me over 55% correct predictions on games with a 5 point difference between my spread and the published spread for each of the three seasons used. Better yet, when the point spread difference was 7 points or more the success rate jumped to over 60%. I have 6 weeks before the start of the 2016-17 season and decided to use the time to verify these new formulas. I loaded the 2012-13 scores into my database and am entering in the point spreads from I have 700 of the 1229 games loaded into the database and so far the results are very promising. Over the next week or so I’ll enter the rest of the season and find out for sure if my 3 ‘success stories’ are for real.

  It seems absurd on face value that any computer program could beat the odds makers. In reality it makes perfect sense. Point spreads are not set in order to predict the actual score. They are set in order to guarantee that there is an equal amount of money bet on either side to allow the gambling facilitators to make money (on the 5-10% extra paid by the losing bettors) no matter who wins the contest. Any false assumption by the betting public (like betting blindly on the Warriors or Cavaliers) or any team with a fan base that always bets on or against then will cause the point spreads to be skewed to attract an equality of wagers on both teams.

  Real or not, I will soon be loading the 2016-2017 schedule into my database, I resolved this season to get an online gambling account on and make my predictions on my NBA point spread predictions blog with real and not mythical money. By using real money on an established gaming site I hope to print my predictions on my blog the day after the games using screen prints as verification and offer my predictions the day of the games on a subscription basis.

  I plan to start my Bovada account with $500 and bet $10 on each game. I’m not expecting to go 45 games under .500 at any point in the season (which would exhaust my funds) but I’ll deal with that situation if it happens. The hardest part of this exercise will be to have the discipline to stick with my formula and not make picks every day just to be making picks. There are going to be plenty of days where my formula doesn’t differ from the published point spreads and those are the days that will test my patience.

  I hope I manage to make some actual money picking NBA games this season because the thought is occurring to me that wagering on the outcome of sporting events is going the way of the dinosaur and I want to be successful before the practice goes extinct. The new way of gambling on sporting events is not betting on the winners and losers but by playing ‘Fantasy Sports’ where the gambler picks a roster of players and roots for his ‘squad’ to outscore the competing squads by having better statistics. Fantasy sports is at least 40 years old, having gotten its start as ‘Rotisserie Baseball’ and graduated to the big time as Fantasy Football. Originally these activities were done by small groups but have gone global with the arrival of Internet sites that allow players from all over the world to play in the same ‘leagues’ for huge amounts of money.

  The biggest companies in the fantasy sports business are ‘’ and ‘’. Both companies advertise heavily on sports broadcasts and podcasts and like most of the successful drug dealers I’ve known will give new customers a free taste of the action.

  While sports betting is only legal in Nevada (Delaware has state sponsored sports parlay betting), playing fantasy sports for money is allowed in over 35 of the 50 states. New York famously banned online fantasy sports in 2015 as gambling but did a turnaround after passing regulations that included taxing the gaming sites to the tune of 4 million dollars a year.

  It’s amusing to see fantasy sports and betting on the outcomes of sport events decried as gambling by the same entities that run multi-million dollar lotteries that only pay out 50% of the take. Is sports betting gambling? For the unskilled, absolutely! But for the skilled it is not gambling at all. The Wall Street Journal reported that 91% of the prize money in the 2015 baseball fantasy season was won by 1.3% of the participants. I don’t know if the same ratio holds true for picking against the point spread but if it does I hope I’m a one percenter.