Friday, March 27, 2015

The day I was a Boston Fan

  I got my first programming job in Florida in 1985. I was the full-time computer operator (a job that doesn’t exist anymore) and a part-time programmer with two other programmers. When one of the programmers quit I became a full-time programmer and remained the full-time computer operator and even got a 30 cent an hour raise to $7.55 an hour as part of my promotion. At the time the minimum wage was $3.35 an hour and I was thrilled because at that point it was more important to learn programming than make money and since I was working over 60 hours a week I already had plenty of money and no time to spend it. My attitude soon changed when I was promoted to a full-time programmer with an extra 25 cents an hour but no more overtime and my replacement as full-time computer operator was hired for $8.50 an hour which I only found out when I was working on some payroll reports.

  I soon made my way back to New Jersey and got a job as a full time programmer in March of 1987 at Amerex of California for a salary that worked out very close to the $8.50 an hour the Floridian computer operator was making if you don’t count the fact that I worked over 50 hours a week because I loved programming so much. I worked in a three person shop with Greg the programmer/manager and Bruce the vice president of data processing. Bruce was 20 years older than me and had written the systems I worked on. Bruce and I got along pretty well and we would talk about sports a lot. While I was interested in which team would win their division or win a game or a series Bruce was much more interested in who would win a single game along with point spreads and odds which was natural when you think about it because Bruce loved to gamble.

  Bruce would gamble on whatever sport was in season and during the summer of 1987 he would show me his bets on the baseball games and explain to me his thought processes he would use in considering the combination of the starting pitchers and odds he would get. In the fall he switched to football and hockey with horse racing a constant staple of his betting adventures. Bruce was really smart and had an excellent memory. He was a great card player and had a big money Friday night poker game that he said funded his weekly bets. I think he won his bets most weeks but there were some occasions that he would ask me what I thought about the Monday Night Football game and mention he needed to win his bet to ‘catch up’.

  I had my first personal computer at Amerex. It has a 10 megabyte hard disk drive and two floppy disk drives that provided another 720 kilobytes of portable storage. All together this amount of storage wouldn’t be enough to save a picture from today’s digital cameras but back then it was a lot of storage and allowed unheard of freedom and flexibility. I dabbled in a program called Dbase which was a database program that allowed users to make data tables and write programs to manipulate them. In the fall of 1987 I entered the first two months of NBA scores and betting lines into a Dbase table. There was no internet and I got my data from newspapers or radio. It wasn’t a trivial task because west coast scores weren’t reported in the morning papers and hardly mentioned on the sports reports but after two months I had my data and started work on a program to pick basketball games.

  My program measured team’s margin of victory in their home and road games and predicted a winner with a margin of victory. I then compared my results to the actual results and the betting lines. I experimented with weightings to favor more recent results and eventually came up with a system that I felt comfortable worked. When my assessment was 5 points different that the betting line I was right on 58% percent of my predictions, when my assessment was 3 to 5 points different I was right 53% percent of the time and when my assessment was under a three point difference I was only right 49% of the time.

  This year’s Super Bowl betting saw the Patriots as a two to three point favorite two weeks before the game but as the betting public bet their money on Seattle the bookmakers had the Patriots giving less points to attract betting on the Patriots. This is because the bookmakers don’t want to gamble on a game – they want a guaranteed profit and they get that by having an equal amount of money on both sides of a bet. The profit is guaranteed because straight bets like the point spread or the over/under generally carry a 10 percent penalty for losing bets. This is called the ‘vigorish’ and is the bookmaker’s commission for matching the bets and ensures a profit as long as bets are equally made on both sides of a proposition.

  This means two very important things to gamblers and prognosticators. First, any betting system needs 11 winning bets for every 10 losing bets to make up for the vigorish. This works out to a 52.4 winning percentage just to break even. Second, the goal isn’t to beat the bookmakers but to find and exploit the betting biases in the gambling population that distort the point spreads or over/under numbers. My system being 53% correct with a 3 to 5 point variance was just barely enough to break even and could leave me a loser when betting a small number of games. The 58% success rate when my system strongly disagreed with the point spread was something worth pursuing with the only red flag being that my system only spit out this type of disagreement a few times a week.

  In the first two weeks of 1988 my system came up with seven games that were bet-able and was right five of the seven times. Bruce knew I was working on the system in my spare time and one Friday morning he asked if there was a game I recommended to bet on that day. The lowly Sacramento Kings were in Boston to take on the mighty Celtics of Larry Bird, Kevin McHale, and Robert Parrish. The Celtics had just defeated the Detroit Pistons by almost 40 points at home while the Kings had won only one road game all year. The Celtics were 24 point favorites and my system predicted a 32 point victory. I asked Bruce if he would put $50 on the Celtics for me. Bruce said he would if he could get ahold of his bookie. At quitting time on Friday I asked Bruce if he had gotten ahold of his bookie and he said he did but instead of just putting $50 on the Celtics he put a couple thousand dollars on them since he needed to catch up on a bad week.

  I drove home in a cold sweat never expecting my boss’s boss to bet what for me would have been a couple month’s pay based on my little Dbase program. ESPN was a regional cable network at that time and I didn’t have cable TV anyway so to keep track of the scores I switched between New York’s only sports station WFAN with their reports at the top of the hour and 20 minutes after and 20 minute before the hour, WCBS new radio 880 with sports reports at 15 and 45 past the hour, and 1010 news radio WINS with sports reports 10 past each half hour.

  The first report came with the Celtics grabbing a 20 point lead in the first quarter but then the Kings cut it to a dozen 20 minutes later. By the next report the game was at halftime with the Celtics back to a 20 point lead which grew to 40 in the third quarter. I was feeling pretty good and considering the prospects of a promotion when the next report had the Kings cutting the lead to 18 in the fourth quarter. I started scanning the want ads in the newspaper for programming jobs when the next report had the Celtics with a 26 point lead with a few minutes left. I had my heart in my stomach waiting for the final score but the sports report gave the hockey scores and only noted the winners of the basketball games. I waited another 20 minutes and finally the score came and the Celtics won by well over 24 points. I let out a huge sigh of relief and went to bed a happy person.

  When I got to work on Monday Bruce had my $50 and I was expecting some congratulations for helping him break even for the week and maybe even a tip but instead Bruce said “I told my poker game how I had this genius working for me and that he figured out a basketball system. Then I told them about the bet I made on the Celtics giving 24 points and they made fun of me all night.” I asked why and Bruce said, “They told me that only an idiot or a Boston fan ever gives that many.” I pointed out that the bet won and Bruce said “Yeah, but these guys killed me all night at the poker game. They called all my bluffs because they thought since I was stupid enough to give 24 points with the Celtics that I was probably stupid enough to be bluffing!”

  Bruce never asked me for any sports advice after that and I stopped entering the data into the dBase program soon after but I never forgot the day I was the biggest Celtics fan there ever was.

  I've thought from time to time about resurrecting my basketball picking program but there's no need to at the moment thanks to my 4-1 mark last week which boosted my record to 12-2 over the last three weeks and padded my winnings to 310 mythical dollars - a big improvement from the $570 hole I found myself in three weeks ago. In the last three weeks I've done well picking good teams at home to cover the spread against bad teams and picking against teams playing on the second night of a back to back. There are no teams playing back to back and few pushovers on the road in tonights well-balanced schedule. On Wednesday afternoon I thought I had everything figured out, - Boston and Phoenix were hot, Portland was cold, and Brooklyn was playing poorly at home. Then on Wednesday night, Portland won a gritty road game at Utah, Phoenix was awful at home against Sacramento, and an injury plagued Miami Heat team won in Boston. Nonetheless I see some opportunities for profit on tonight's slate and as usual I'll be making my picks using the lines as listed on the Yahoo Sports page for entertainment purposes only.

Cleveland Cavaliers at Brooklyn Nets
I picked against the Nets at home last week and was punished with my lone setback in the last two weeks when they beat the Milwaukee Bucks in double overtime. The Nets have won five out of their last seven to put them on the periphery of the Eastern Conference playoff race but the Cavaliers are playing at a championship level and I'll pick them to take the road contest and will lay the 8.5 points to win $100.

Dallas Mavericks at San Antonio Spurs
On Tuesday the Mavericks fell behind early but outscored the Spurs by 20 in the middle two quarters to win easily in Dallas. I think the Spurs will have something to prove to their home crowd and will pick them to win by more than the 8.5 points on a $100 bet.

Portland Trailblazers at Phoenix Suns
The injury plagued Trailblazers just broke their five game losing streak while the Suns had their four game winning streak snapped in an awful home loss to the lowly Kings. I predict the Suns will rebound from their putrid performance and beat Portland to win me $100 and I even get a point.

Golden State Warriors at Memphis Grizzlies
When these two teams met in December, the Grizzlies won by seven at home but the Warriors were without big men Andrew Bogut and David Lee. The Warriors will have these two for tonight's game to battle Memphis bigs Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph and are getting 3.5 points besides so I will take the Warriors and the points for a $100 wager.

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Mine all Mine

  Before I get started on the main topic of this post I wanted to weigh in on the ongoing staggeringly popular NCAA Basketball tournament that generates BILLIONS of dollars in revenue (see it here)...

  Unlike most of America I didn’t fill out a bracket sheet for this month’s NCAA March Madness mens basketball tournament. Like most of America I watched a large sampling of the first two rounds this past weekend. The big storyline this year is whether the Kentucky Wildcats will win the championship and have the first perfect college basketball season in 39 years. I got to see Kentucky play for the first time this year on Saturday against the Cincinnati Bearcats. Kentucky is very long but not very beefy and were getting pushed around by the very physical Bearcats for most of the first half. What I liked about the Wildcats was that instead of settling for jump shots in the face of a physical challenge they kept bringing the ball inside first and only tried to score from outside when the lane was closed. Cincinnati was unable to sustain their effort for a full 40 minutes and lost by a fairly respectable 13 points. I like the way Kentucky faced up to the physical challenge and I think they will win this tournament and take their place among the best NCAA teams of all time. There is the possibility their season could be undone by a hot three point shooting team but those teams tend to disappear as the tournament goes on since it is exceedingly hard to win game after game with long range shooting. I’ll put my money on the team that can get the ball inside for easy baskets every time and be right more than I’m wrong.

The four door Chevy Spark on the left has the same VIN number than the one on the right but there is a difference. The Spark on the left belonged to Bob Brown and then to me and a finance company while the one on the right is all mine as of last week.

  I’ve had my 2013 Chevy Spark for a little less than two years. When I got the car I put no money down and signed up for a 60 month loan with a payment of $249 a month which included the taxes and a 100,000 mile bumper to bumper warranty. The interest rate on my loan was 2.44% which was outstanding but getting the loan at a term of 60 months was silly on my part. I travel over 100 miles a day to and from work. After three years my car is looking at 90,000 miles and it’s time to think about getting a new car so a five year loan leaves me with two years to pay for a car with 90,000 miles on it. I’ve taken three year loans on all my other work cars and still don’t understand why I set up a five year loan this time around. I set up my payments to be automatically made online with the first payment on July 8, 2013.

  By September 8th 2013, I'd made three car payments and wasn’t seeing much of a dent in how much I owed to pay off my car. A couple of weeks later I got some checks for helping people who still use the shoe store software I wrote years ago and instead of buying a new TV or some chess books or anything else I deposited the checks in the bank and made an online payment towards my car. That made a small but visible dent in my car loan so whenever I got paid for supporting the legacy shoe store software I put it towards paying off my car.

  In December of 2013 I set a goal to pay off my car by May of 2016 (three years from when I took out the loan). To that end I increased the automatic monthly payment from $249 to $325 and I started putting all my extra money towards the car. I got a check from my father in law as a Christmas gift and it went towards my car. I put in some extra time at work (I don’t get paid overtime or even straight time but I do get some time) and I put that towards my car.

  Once 2014 started it was more of the same and more. At work we got a profit sharing bonus and it went to my car along with my shoe store money. Then I was assigned to work at a bank on the other side of Des Moines for most of the year. I got a few dollars a day in mileage reimbursement for driving across town. The reimbursement would get deposited in my bank account once a week and once a week I forwarded it towards my car loan. Even though it was just a few dollars at a time I took a lot of enjoyment in watching the loan balance go down and each time I erased a month’s payment from the end of the loan was like a mini-celebration. Just a week before the 2014 elections, I got a $79 check from Iowa’s incumbent attorney general Tom Miller for a class action lawsuit for some distress I apparently suffered during some telemarketing calls. It was a win-win situation since Miller won re-election and I got to put another $79 towards my car loan.

  Slowly but surely every little bit added up and by March of 2014 I was on pace to meet my goal by just making my automatic payment but I was on a roll. Each night I put my change in a giant jar. Once a year I cash in my change jar but this year I put my change jar towards my car. I kept on putting my gas and shoe store support money towards my car and by the end of 2014 I was on pace to be finished by September of 2015. Then in March I got another profit sharing bonus from work and combined with some of my tax return I made the last payment on my Chevy Spark 22 months after I bought the car and 20 months after my first payment in July of 2013.

  What did I learn from my 18 month quest to pay off my car loan early? I learned a lot about discipline. I could easily have taken a few dollars of my found money and bought a book or had a nice lunch but I didn’t. And I didn't miss the found money since it was found and not something I ever counted on. I’ve known a lot of people that would spend their found money two or three times and be worse off than if they hadn’t any found money in the first place. I’ve been there myself but for the last year and a half I was able to take my found money and put it to a single goal. The other thing I learned is that between occasional gas reimbursements, tax refunds, bonuses, change jars, and supporting my old shoe store software I get a lot more ‘found money’ than I thought I did. Now that my car is paid for the big question to my mind is will I let my found money drip through my fingers or be able to find another good use for it.

Friday, March 20, 2015

My Inner Ripken

  On September 20, 1998 Cal Ripken didn’t play in the Baltimore Orioles home game against the New York Yankees. Normally a player sitting out a game wouldn’t cause a ripple but this was the first game in the Orioles' last 2,633 games that Ripken hadn’t played in. It was the longest consecutive games streak in baseball history. The funny thing was that most of the fans and even many of the Yankee players didn’t know the streak was going to end until the game was underway although it because the top story on the ESPN news crawl once it was realized that the streak was ending. I never thought too much of the Orioles – they seemed too perfect with the ‘Oriole Way’ and manager Earl Weaver’s tantrums and boasting about how his style of waiting for three run homers was the only winning strategy and star pitcher Jim Palmer and his jockey shorts commercials but I loved watching Brooks and Frank Robinson and thought Paul Blair was the greatest defensive center fielder I ever saw. I never feared Ripken when the Yankees played the Orioles and certainly wouldn’t take him over Derek Jeter despite his 2 MVP awards which included the 1991 award as a member of the 67-95 Orioles over Cecil Fielder and his 44 home runs for the second place 84-78 Tigers. I’m not bashing Ripken’s award but in 1990 Fielder became the first person in 13 years to hit 50 homers for the 79-83 third place Tigers yet finished second in the MVP voting to Rickey Henderson because Henderson played on a winning team. I’m not saying Ripken didn’t deserve the MVP award – I’m saying he didn’t deserve it as much as Fielder given the standards of the time.

  To much less fanfare than the end of Cal Ripken’s streak I didn’t have a youth chess tournament in the Des Moines area in February so my streak of 49 straight months with a tournament is over. Attendance at my tournaments has been very uneven this school year. I had the most participants I ever had for a September tournament, the least ever for an October tournament, then the most ever for November and December tournaments.

  I thought I had an upswing going but then I had the lowest January number ever and as icing on the cake I only had two players in the rated (or advanced) section in the afternoon. And the little icing flower on the icing on the cake was that one of the players that was playing in the rated section was Seth from Marshalltown who came with me to help me set up and play for free. I had Seth play the other player in a match but the parents who drove their child down to the tournament were disappointed and I don't blame them since I was not able to deliver the tournament that I advertised.

  My work trip to California in February was a small factor but not a major one in skipping the month. I figured that since my January tournament was late in the month and poorly attended there was no point in rushing a tournament in three or four weeks just to say that I have a tournament every month. I spend about six hours in a month preparing for each tournament and another 13 hours on the tournament day and while I’m sure I put those 20 hours to good use I can’t point to anything that I did with the extra time. In fact, I didn’t notice any measurable extra free time in February.

  I didn’t announce that I wasn’t having a February tournament. I wondered if anyone would notice and I got two emails late in the month asking when my next tournament was. When I set up the March tournament I wanted to avoid parents bringing their children for a rated tournament that I might or might not be able to provide. I made the tournament unrated only with the mention that if enough players wanted a rated tournament I’d offer one. I did have five players for a rated tournament in the morning but in the afternoon I had one player who wanted to play in a rated tournament so I had him play Chandler (who I brought from Marshalltown to help me set up) a two game match. It was again a bummer not to have many players for a rated tournament but at least this month I didn’t advertise something I couldn’t deliver.

  Even without many rated players the attendance in March was just three off the best March attendance I’ve ever had. I don’t understand the exodus of rated players but I don’t have to understand it. I’m getting more unrated players than ever before at the tournaments which means to me that the are still performing a useful function for a large group of players. I have some sadness at the ending of my streak but at the same time it is liberating in a way I couldn’t have predicted. I’m heading to Okoboji to direct the super Okoboji Open tournament for my friends Jodene Kruse and Sam Smith next month and don’t have to set up an April youth tournament just for the sake of a streak or to uphold a tradition. I think might be the same feeling Sarah Connor had at the end of the iconic film ‘Terminator 2’ when she said “The unknown future rolls toward us.”

  One streak I hope will never end is my current streak of basketball predictions. After a stellar 4-0 mark last week I have gone 7-1 over the last two weeks and find myself rounding into playoff form with 20 mythical dollars on the plus side. As usual I'll be making my picks using the lines as listed on the Yahoo Sports page for entertainment purposes only. Tonight's games feature three quality matchups (Hawks vs. Thunder, Grizzlies vs. Mavericks, and Raptors vs. Bulls) but I am going to plumb the depths of the NBA and pick four playoff teams to cover against non-playoff opponents and also pick against the league-worst Knicks who make any team look like a playoff contender.

New York Knicks at Philadelphia 76ers
The league-worst Knicks were on cloud 9 after beating the defending champion Spurs on Tuesday but after a disheartening loss to the league second-worst Timberwolves last night won't be able to cope with the athletic and rested 76ers team on a short road trip to Philly. I'll lay the 6 and a half points and put $100 on the 76ers.

Denver Nuggets at Miami Heat
The Nuggets are travelling from a game in Houston last night to the east coast for a game in Miami against the rested Heat. I look for the Heat to build on their big win against Portland Wednesday and cement their precarious playoff position and will give the 7 points on a $100 bet.

Milwaukee Bucks at Brooklyn Nets
I don't like picking road teams but will make an exception for the Bucks as they will be desperate to break their four game losing streak against the disintegrating Nets. It doesn't hurt that Bucks coach Jason Kidd really likes sticking it to the Nets team he coached last year until he lost a power struggle with GM Billy King. I'll give the Nets 2 and a half points and take the Bucks on a $100 wager.

Washington Wizards at Los Angeles Clippers
Despite the Wizards road win over the red hot Utah Jazz on Wednesday I don't think they'll be able to match up with the Clippers now that Blake Griffin has returned from his staph infection to provide some front court help for DeAndre Jordan and will lay the 6 and a half points on a $100 bet.

Boston Celtics at San Antonio Spurs
After their embarrassing loss at the hands of the league worst Knick on Tuesday the defending champion Spurs beat the Milwaukee Bucks by 11 on the road on Wednesday and return home to meet the resurgent Celtics. I think the Spurs will put be buoyed by their fanatical home crowd and win this game in a blowout so I'll lay the 9 points to win $100.

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Gas Attack

  From the Republican Governors Association website circa 2013 (here is the link):
“This tax day, Iowans will get to keep more of their hard-earned money thanks to Governor Terry Branstad, who signed the state’s largest tax cut in history. Governor Branstad’s tax cut is expected to provide Iowans with $4 billion in property tax relief over the next decade. Branstad’s opponent, Jack Hatch, wants to raise taxes on Iowans and proposed increasing the state’s gas tax. It’s clear Iowa should stick with the governor who has a record of putting Iowans’ hard-earned money back in their own pockets.” – RGA Communications Director Gail Gitcho

  Like it says above in June of 2013 Iowa’s Republican Governor Terry Branstad signed a 4 BILLION DOLLAR property tax relief bill into law. I’m normally in favor of reducing my taxes and I am a property owner but my property taxes went up and not down. Maybe I don't own the right kind of property since there was no relief for me. In 2014 Branstad was running for governor and his opponent Jack Hatch was in favor of a 10 cent gasoline tax to pay for road and bridge improvements. Branstad easily won his reelection and proving my long held belief that there is no such thing as more than one political party proceeded to champion and sign a 10 cent gas tax increase to pay for road and bridge improvements. The bill was signed two weeks ago and the new tax is expected to raise 215 million dollars annually.

  While I still haven’t seen any of my 4 BILLION DOLLAR property tax relief, I saw the 10 cent increase in gas prices within a week after Branstad signed the bill. In defending the bill Branstad called the tax hike a ‘true user fee’. State Rep. Dave Jacoby, D-Coralville voted for the tax increase saying in finest policitalese “The question is, is critical infrastructure needed, and is it needed right now.”. The new tax passed with largely bipartisan support and I could have quoted lots of comments but I'll restrict myself to these two.

  I’m sure the recent low gas prices emboldened Republicans and Democrats alike to take ‘more of their hard-earned money’ from the pockets of Iowans and Governor Branstad likely won’t be running for another term as governor and won’t have to defend this money grab. Personally I’m pretty fired up about the rationale for raising the price of gasoline in order to pay for a crumbling infrastructure.

  Iowa has been collecting 22 cents per gallon of gas sold in the state for the last 25 years. Where has that money been going? Did Iowa’s infrastructure situation get critical overnight or over the past year? Of course is hasn’t but the elected officials have found some other uses for the 400 million dollars a year they currently collect. How could Governor Branstad and the rest of Iowa’s elected officials pass a so called 4 billion dollar property tax cut when the state’s infrastructure is in such critical condition that a 200 million dollar tax hike is needed? Wouldn’t cutting taxes by only 2 billion dollars leave enough money to fix the infrastructure without having to raise taxes?

  I understand Governor Branstad’s comment about the new tax being a ‘true user fee’ but just because I understand it doesn’t mean it makes any sense to me. Yes I use the roads but what about people with electric cars? Where is their user fee? Is there a waiver for people buying gasoline for lawnmowers or snowmobiles that don’t use the infrastructure? The entire state benefits from having good roads not just people that buy gasoline. When counties across the state exercised their option to raise their local sales taxes the most vociferous arguments I heard for its adoption was that communities would be big winners because there were so many people from other areas that would make purchases and leave their sales tax money behind (the local option tax has since been usurped by the state and pooled among participating communities). Any community that is getting extra sales tax money from incoming travelers would benefit from any infrastructure improvements but don’t have to pay for the improvements.

  I would expect a ‘true user fee’ to apply the extra gas tax revenues on where the most traffic is. A likely candidate would be the Des Moines mixmaster which is by far the most traveled roads in the state - but NO. The first major road improvement is to make 30 miles of Highway 20 in northwest Iowa a four lane road. I haven’t been able to find out exactly how much the completion costs but I did find an article saying that converting an 11 mile stretch of route 20 to a four lane road will cost 82 million dollars and that 29 more miles will remain 2 lanes which leads me to an estimate of nearly 300 million dollars to finish the road. That’s over a year of the increased revenues going to a part of the state where less than 15 percent of the people live. It doesn’t sound like a ‘true user fee’ to me.

  And as long as I’m talking about ‘true user fees’ or user fees in general since when does the government run on user fees? Are school costs covered by taxes on people with school age children? No, but money from the Iowa Lottery is used to build schools. Marshalltown is going to have a vote on whether or not to raise property taxes to fund a bond issue for the library. If it passes I’ll have to pay for the bond issue. Why isn’t the library funded by user fees? If true user fees were important I would expect grocery stores to pay more taxes for food stamps ... I mean Electronic Benefit Transfer cards since they reap the profits from the food being sold and government workers to pay their fair share of all the rules and regulations that give them their jobs in the first place. And while I'm at it, shouldn't handicapped people be made to pay for any costs incurred by the Americans With Disabilities Act? OK I know I'm being a bit absurd but there is very little in the government that is paid for by 'user fees'.

  Having good roads and bridges in the state and more specifically a four lane highway in a desolate stretch of western Iowa isn’t seen as a benefit to the people of the state in general but only as a benefit to the ‘users’ that must be paid for in the form of gasoline fees. No one can explain why a state that spends 2 BILLION DOLLARS a year on its road system (it really does - you can read it here) has 27 percent of its urban roads in disrepair and I don’t have any confidence that and extra 200 million dollars is going to change anything. Now that the bill is passed and the price of gasoline has increased the big winners will be the people who own road construction companies that will probably eat up the extra revenue with their own price increases and the next time gas hits a decade low the Iowa legislature will hike the gas tax again and cite the reason for the hike as the deteriorating conditions of the state’s roads and bridges.

  I was discussing the new gas tax with a coworker and they said ‘There’s nothing you can do about it but pay.’ That’s true for the most part and I’ll be paying an extra 80 dollars or so to the State of Iowa instead of spending it in the State of Iowa. But there is a couple of things I can do. I don’t normally vote for any candidates from the major parties. I’ve never voted for Governor Branstad and probably won’t be able to ever vote against him but I will vote for the Democratic candidate for Governor from now on. My local Democratic representative is a Democrat and I have voted for him in the past because he has pointed people to my chess club but from now on I’ll be sure to vote for his opponent. Not that voting for either party really makes a difference but I’ll treat it as my Tums or Rolaids gas attack remedy.

  As if paying extra for gasoline in order to expand roads in Northwest Iowa wasn't enough, I got to contribute even more money when I was tagged for a speeding ticket this week. I was clocked at 76 in a 65 mile per hour zone on route 65 north where going 75 miles an hour will get you passed by every other car on the road. I was going to suggest to the trooper that was writing my ticket that he could follow our elected officials and raise highway money that way but then I remembered the last person who tried to give Governor Branstad a speeding ticket got fired for his trouble (you can read about it here).

Friday, March 13, 2015

A Great Meal on any Day

  Almost every Saturday I go with Kathy on a round trip to the Salvation Army and Goodwill thrift stores where she looks for additions to her Christmas Candle collection and lunch at the local Taco John’s and in between we stop at the Hy-Vee Drug Store. When I first moved to Marshalltown the store was simply called ‘Drug Town’ which was short and catchy but probably not a name you would want to have parents tell their children they are going to. We stop at the Hy-Vee Drug Store to check lottery tickets, buy popcorn from the Lions Club popcorn stand, and to check on what bargains are on sale. Most of the time there aren’t any special bargains but in the past I’ve gotten 15 stick packs of Wrigley Gum for 44 cents, packs of 24 beef sticks for 11 dollars, and apple juice for $1.16 a half gallon. Two years ago I missed the chance on buying instant oatmeal for 25 cents a box but I passed since I consider oatmeal the vilest food in the universe but that’s a topic for another day.

  I didn’t have to wait long to find a bargain last Saturday at the Hy-Vee Drug Store. The entrance aisle had cases and cases of Kraft Velveeta Chicken Chili Cheese Mac on sale at the low price of three for a dollar. Kathy and I waked around the store and got the popcorn and walked past the cases and cases of Kraft Velveeta Chicken Chili Cheese Mac. We were almost out the door when I turned around, grabbed three boxes of Kraft Velveeta Chicken Chili Cheese Mac, paid my dollar at the register, and rejoined Kathy and headed to Taco John’s where I paid $5 for a Taco Salad which is good but just a couple of unshelled tacos dumped in a big taco shell bowl when you get right down to it.

  I spent the rest of Saturday afternoon wondering why the Kraft Velveeta Chicken Chili Cheese Mac was so inexpensive. Normally the Hy-Vee Drug Store has items like this on sale for at least a dollar. I considered that perhaps there was a negative connotation with the word ‘Velveeta’ which is a ‘Pasteurized Prepared Cheese Product’ and not real cheese and that this sale was a way of Kraft to get rid of a failed product. I also considered that Kraft Velveeta Chicken Chili Cheese Mac might taste really awful. I decided I would have a bowl of the Kraft Velveeta Chicken Chili Cheese Mac for dinner and see for myself.

The 2013 Chevy Spark mistook my Kraft Velveeta Chicken Chili Cheese Mac for a passenger...

  After Daisy and Baxter’s 6pm walk I took one of my three Kraft Velveeta Chicken Chili Cheese Mac boxes, read the instructions, and pulled the self-contained bowl out of the box. I detached the pouch of ‘Liquid Gold’ (Velveeta) and attempted to carefully peel some of the plastic cover off of the bowl. I soon discovered why the Kraft Velveeta Chicken Chili Cheese Mac was on sale – the plastic cover was glued on so tight that neither Kathy nor I could peel it off. After a few minutes I took out my handy pocket knife and cut off a piece of the plastic cover. I popped the bowl in the microwave for one minute, opened the pouch of Velveeta and squeezed it into the bowl, and mixed the ‘pasteurized prepared cheese product’ into the noodles, red beans, and tiny pieces of chicken that occupied the bowl.

  I wouldn’t say the Kraft Velveeta Chicken Chili Cheese Mac was the best meal I’ve ever had but it was pretty good. While the only ‘chili’ was a few red beans and there wasn’t very much chicken there was enough chicken to give the macaroni and cheese some flavor and the Velveeta wasn’t overpowering the rest of the bowl as Velveeta tends to do. The package weighed 9 ounces and I was full after I ate it and didn’t feel overstuffed. I’d have to say I enjoyed the Taco John’s Taco Salad I had for lunch more but I didn’t enjoy the taco salad twice as much and I paid 15 times more for the Taco Salad then the Kraft Velveeta Chicken Chili Cheese Mac!

Trying to divine the secret to Kraft Velveeta Chicken Chili Cheese Mac's low price.

  On Sunday I only had two boxes of Kraft Velveeta Chicken Chili Cheese Mac so I headed back to the Hy-Vee Drug Store to get some more while I mailing my Iowa Tax return at their postal station. After mailing my return, I grabbed 4 cases of Kraft Velveeta Chicken Chili Cheese Mac (each containing six boxes) , headed to the counter, and $8 later was packing four cases of Kraft Velveeta Chicken Chili Cheese Mac into the passenger seat of my Chevy Spark. The four cases fooled my Spark into thinking I had a passenger and tripped the passenger seat belt warning so I pulled over and put a seat belt on my four cases of Kraft Velveeta Chicken Chili Cheese Mac and we all safely made it home.

  Once home, I carried the four cases into the house and began a more detailed inspection to find out why the Kraft Velveeta Chicken Chili Cheese Mac was so inexpensive aside from the superglued plastic bowl cover. I looked at the case and noticed that while it was inspected for wholesomeness by the USDA there was no mention of it passing the inspection. Then I saw the outside of the box said to not reuse the tray and the cheese pouch was made from ‘real cheese’ while the ingredients clearly showed there was more canola oil than cheese in the sauce.

Upon further review the low price is a dating issue!

  I had made up my mind that I was going to have to pass on the 26 boxes of Kraft Velveeta Chicken Chili Cheese Mac since it hadn’t been deemed wholesome by the USDA inspection, the tray was so toxic it couldn’t be reused, and the cheese sauce wasn’t made from real cheese when Kathy looked at one of the cases and said ‘You can’t use them in three weeks.’ Sure enough the case clearly said ‘Use by 26 Mar 2015’ so I was OK as long as I made sure to eat at least one a day and two every other day.

  I was just about to get started when I saw that the boxes inside the case said ‘Best if used by 26 Mar 2015’ so I put the Kraft Velveeta Chicken Chili Cheese Mac away and had one for dinner Sunday and took one to work on Wednesday to eat.

Three steps to a 33 cent lunch!

  I don’t especially care if my Kraft Velveeta Chicken Chili Cheese Mac is at their best when I eat them. After all, they only cost 33 cents and at that price I’m sure it would taste great in March of 2016 or 2017. I attracted a lot of attention when I cooked my Kraft Velveeta Chicken Chili Cheese Mac at the company break room on Wednesday. I’m not sure if it was because of the Kraft Velveeta Chicken Chili Cheese Mac or the fact that I was taking pictures of the process.

  I might have had to make Kraft Velveeta Chicken Chili Cheese Mac a permanent dietary staple if I had continued to tank in my basketball picks but after beating the odds on all three of my money line picks last week I'm at a manageable $380 mythical dollars in the red heading into tonight's rather lackluster slate of nine game of which only one features two likely playoff teams. As usual I'll be making my picks using the lines as listed on the Yahoo Sports page for entertainment purposes only.

Los Angeles Clippers at Dallas Mavericks
The Clippers looked great in their 20 point beatdown of the Oklahoma City Thunder Wednesday but I think they will be looking past the struggling Mavericks towards Sunday's nationally televised home game against the Houston Rockets and will pick the Mavericks taking the 2 and a half points to the tune of $100.

Sacramento Kings at Philadelphia 76ers.
The 76ers have looked competitive on their recent home stand while the Kings are in the midst of an 8 game road trip. I expect the 76ers to win outright but will take the four points as insurance with a $100 bet.

Detroit Pistons at Portland Trailblazers
The Pistons are on an 8 game losing skid and I look for the Trailblazers to give them a ninth straight loss after their impressive win over the Houston Rockets on Wednesday. I don't want to lay the 8 and half points so I'll put $325 on the moneyline to pick up $100 if the pistons lose.

Golden State Warriors at Denver Nuggets
The Warriors are 'resting' all stars Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson as well as center Andrew Bogut and sixth man Andre Iguodala while the Nuggets have won four of six since firing head coach Brian Shaw. The Nuggets are 1 and a half point favorite and I expect them to continue the 'dead cat bounce' and win a game the Warriors are treating as an exhibition and bet $100 that they win and cover.